Monday, April 18, 2011

Valhalla Rising (UK/Denmark, 2009)

According to imdb, director Nicolas Winding Refn conceived Valhalla Rising, his latest film, as some sort of acid trip on film. Well, he didn't quit make it. In fact, the film isn't even a mushroom trip – the tale is much logically consecutive to come close to being a hallucinogen – but for that, Valhalla Rising is genetically enhanced crossbreed of sativa and indica. And as such, as a movie it is far more interesting than the average crap you get out there. Not only that, it's pretty fucking good – if you can deal with a deliberate pacing that gives meaning to the phrase "deliberate pacing."
While watching the film, for some odd reason I kept thinking of Andrzej Zulawski's totally obscure mind-fuck of a horror movie from 1981, Possession (trailer). The two films might have nothing in common in regard to genre or narrative, but both sort of beat you against the wall and continually rip the rug out from beneath you, leaving you totally confused, perhaps even upset, feeling as if you just spent a week in Amsterdam without a night's sleep or anything else to eat other than space cakes, and only radioactive pot smoke as oxygen. As is the case when watching Possession, when watching Valhalla Rising you feel that the filmmaker is trying to tell you something – wants to tell you something – but whatever it is that he wants to say is lost.
Luckily, though you know there is probably a message in the flick that you can't find, can't hear, can't see, Valhalla Rising is such a beautifully made mind trip that you don't care that you don't understand it. The Danish newspaper Berlingske Tidende was almost right when they claimed that the film "unbearably self-important," they just chose the wrong adverbial: like Possession, Valhalla Rising drips self-importance, but like Possession, Valhalla Rising is anything but unbearable. Sure, Valhalla Rising is pretentious, but it's is also extremely violent, finely artsy-fartsy Eurotrash like you haven't seen in a long time, if at all. You don't need to be an art-house wussy to love this ball-breaker of a film; it appeals in equal measure to both to the grindhouse bear and the art-house bottom, veering as it does between the often cringe-inducing violence and aesthetic ugliness to the on-occasion beautiful landscape shots and many moments of intense silence.
Valhalla, for those of you who don't know, is the hall in Scandinavian mythology* where Odin receives souls of the heroic dead (wimps like you and me go to Fólkvangr). But the ostensible location headed for in this film is Jerusalem, which is never reached; instead, everyone ends up in a living hell that is, one assumes, somewhere in North America, circa 1000 A.D. And North America, circa 1000 A.D., going by the film, is the closest thing to hell on earth that existed at that time.
The film is virtually silent, with all but around 120 lines of dialog, and is broken down into six parts. Part One, "Wrath," introduces us to One-Eye (the always great Mads Mikkelsen of Adam's Apples [2005] and numerous other fab films), a mute gladiator kept and treated like a beast by a womanless Viking tribe. (That there are no women has nothing to do with the story; it is only an observation.) After a number of gore-drenched and violent fights, One-Eye frees himself and slaughters the tribe but for the young boy Are (Maarten Stevenson). One-eye then wanders off and Are, with no place else to go, tags along behind; he becomes the voice of One-Eye, in a way, telling others what the mute warrior is thinking. Part II, "Silent Warrior," finds the two stumbling upon a heathen Nordic village that has been decimated by Crusading Christian Vikings on their way to reclaim Jerusalem for Christ. In the remaining four parts, off they all go by boat on what becomes a nightmarish trip: the silent and unmoving seas that they cross make for an unconvincing Atlantic Ocean, but they do make for a finely hellish sense of inertia and hopelessness. Finally reaching land, they find neither Jerusalem nor heaven nor Valhalla, but a hell on earth disguised as a landscape of green and lush nature... and who keeps shooting those pesky arrows?
The events sound in description much like the traditional narrative of a traditional film, but Valhalla Rising puts less value on the narrative than it does on the image and the mood, interspaced with a lot of dirt and realistic violence, liberally peppered with swathes of filter-induced color and majestic panoramas and gritty close-ups. The film is also one of those types of movies that seemingly starts in the middle of a story and ends at a point where it could easily continue – it is, as a whole, less a closed narrative than a series of existential snapshots strung together.
A beautifully shot and highly unsettling meander through pointlessness that leads mostly to death, Valhalla Rising is a perfect film to pop in the DVD player the next time the in-laws come to visit.

*And remember: if the religions of yesterday are the myths of today, then the religions of today will be the myths of tomorrow.


Sander Tams said...

Okay then.
I'll consider watching it after such a praising review. Especially since it's with Mads Mikkelsen.

Abraham said...

Sorry for getting back so late, but I was on vacation in Madrid. Let me know what you thought of it... Mads Mikkelson does some pretty good stuff, doesn't he?

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