Valhalla Rising is unlike anything you have ever seen before. It’s dark, gruesome, plot-less, profound, cathartic: there are not enough words to do it justice.
In essence, it is ineffable. Most will not watch Valhalla, and those who do will not sit through its entirety. It is painfully slow in the beginning, but director Nicolas Winding Refn is confident in his pace. And he has every right to be. The longer you stay with the movie, the more you realize that Valhalla Rising is more about you than the movie itself. The story is primitive in nature, but the message is not.
The first 10 minutes of the movie set the tone for the remaining 80 with a violent, seemingly meaningless scene of Viking mayhem. A mute, one-eyed captive warrior, played by Mads Mikkelsen, crushes a man’s skull with brutal efficiency, slashes another’s throat with an arrowhead and forces a third to witness, in gruesome detail, his own disembowelment. One Eye, the aforementioned warrior, is emotionless and magnificent. He acts instinctually in order to protect himself from his captors, but never with passion or identifiable motivation. His only friend is a slave boy (Maarten Stevenson) who serves him food and ensures his survival, and later becomes his voice when they are confronted by a band of zealous Christian Vikings.
Set in the Middle Ages, the story follows One Eye and a number of other men who are attempting to recapture Jerusalem, the Holy Land. Winding Refn, though, cares little for history and eschews all but the most minimal requirements in terms of character and plot.
He wants the audience to think, and oh, do you have to work for it. There is not an element of concreteness, but this paradoxically works to the film’s advantage.
Although structured in 6 chapters, the film has no semblance of a definitive plot or even for that matter, a hero. One Eye follows the crusaders on a mission doomed to fail because as soon as they set sail, they are enveloped in unforgiving fog, not knowing where they are going or when they will arrive. The boat is the group’s purgatory, for they are in search of a nonexistent paradise, led by a man who is blinded by his own faith.
Valhalla Rising is a work of art. It is spectacularly shot in the haunting mountains and seas of Scotland. Winding Refn spares no detail visually but forgoes many traditional storyline conventions.
There are at most 20 lines of dialogue in the movie, and each is so intentionally chosen that long after you have finished watching, they will remain with you, constantly ringing in your ears as you to try to rationalize the abstractions of the movie.
Herein lies the film’s greatest strength. It is a visual diatribe on religion, society, mankind, and civilization. It is a commentary whose full ramifications have yet to be realized. You, the viewer, are just as important as Refn, the director. It is a work of art because it transcends the limits of the screen, and it will make you question things you aren’t entirely sure about. The movie is as abstract as my attempt at describing it. You will not understand everything, and you will probably leave the room more confused than when you entered. But it will make you open your eyes. And in a world full of blind men, the one eyed man is king.