“The whole movie was almost thought of as, ‘God, wouldn’t it be great to do one of those movies that you would show in the ’70’s at midnight?’ You know, a drug film, not where you take drugs and watch the movie, but where the movie becomes the drug.”
This is how director Nicolas Winding Refn described the conception of his 2009 film Valhalla Rising. Telling the story of a mute Viking warrior named One Eye, Valhalla Rising is a brutal and poetic film that left me thinking for days after I watched it. I considered what I had just experienced, the violence, the peaceful shots of the beautiful landscape, the religious aspects, and I was left feeling fulfilled. That’s not something I would normally say after watching a movie. Typically, I use descriptives like “awesome” and “visually stunning” and (if I’m being honest about my overuse of superlatives) “one of the best movies I’ve recently seen”. And while I have been fulfilled by a film before (I think that’s one thing good art is supposed to do on some level), I can’t remember the last time I finished a movie and my initial reaction was one of fulfillment. It was pretty great.
Following One Eye as he journeys from being a slave forced to fight to the death against other slaves to being a non-committed part of a crew of Christian crusaders on their way to Jerusalem, the audience is shown the ugly and the beautiful along the way. We are treated to long shots of a group of warriors trudging through pristine mountain landscapes in complete silence broken only by the howling of the wind. You can get lost in these moments. And then you’re just as quickly brought back to reality when One Eye suddenly slaughters everyone around him.
Someone who I work with told me that the film was boring, that there were some exciting fights, but everything in between was so boring that the movie itself wasn’t worth watching. I could not disagree more. Not only is the “in between” the soul of this beautiful film, but the silence and peacefulness is shown to the audience in such a way that it’s almost haunting. You are left feeling slightly disturbed and even ready for the violence that you know is hiding just beneath the surface, waiting to spring out and shatter the mirage you’re currently looking at.
I almost felt like I was watching a Terrence Malick film, if he had developed an obsession with violence and what it does to man, which is interesting because most Malick films are about faith at their core, and in an interview Refn said “I think this film is about faith, essentially, and that’s what’s beyond religion. I think that one of the things that One Eye does as a creation is that he brings people with religion to their understanding of what religion is to them.” He went on to describe the film as looking at the night sky and trying to see past the stars and into the blackness of the void.
The incredible actor Mads Mikkelson, who plays One Eye, expanded on this idea a little in another interview where he said, “We decided fairly fast what the character is. He’s a tool for the film. He does not have a will or a wish. Yes, he wanted to get free and go home, but besides that, everybody else is interpreting him. We wanted people to say, ‘This is Satan’ or ‘No, this is Jesus,’ using him for all means.” And that’s exactly what happens. The boy who accompanies One Eye throughout the film, the crusaders he travels with, even his Viking captors, all see One Eye completely differently, but their faith (or lack thereof) is mirrored in how they perceive him.
I am not entirely sure that I understand what Refn was trying to say with this film. But he has stated before that he’s more interested in what viewers take from his movies than what he was initially trying to say, so maybe that’s a good thing. Regardless, I walked away from it with questions. I’m not sure where the second half of the film took place (North America? Hell? Somewhere Refn made up?). I don’t know what to make of the last scene. And I’m still trying to fit the quote that opens the movie into everything else the film says (“At the dawn of time there was man and nature. Then men bearing crosses drove the heathens to the fringes of the earth.”). But that’s part of this film’s beauty. I’m still thinking about Valhalla Rising three days after I saw it. I’ve had multiple conversations about it at home and at work. It’s made me think about faith, story, myth, and beauty. And ultimately, that has left me feeling fulfilled.
Interview: ‘Valhalla Rising’ Writer-Director Nicolas Winding Refn, by Todd Gilchrist: http://blog.moviefone.com/2010/07/30/interview-valhalla-rising-writer-director-nicolas-winding-ref/
Mads Mikkelsen’s Rites of Passage, by Aaron Hillis: http://www.ifc.com/fix/2010/06/mads-mikkelsen/2