Nasty, Brutish, and Short
Here's a few interesting facts about Valhalla Rising star Mads Mikkelsen. He's one of the most successful actors in Danish history. He's routinely voted in numerous women's magazines as the "Sexiest Man in Denmark." He's a former professional dancer. He's been knighted by the Queen of Denmark. I tell you all of these things because they seem so very at odds with the Mads Mikkelsen that Americans know -- Le Chiffre in Casino Royale, the stoic but deadly knight in Anton Fuqua's misguided King Arthur. And now, the somber, noble-yet-menacing lead in Valhalla Rising.
The other reason I tell you these little bits of nifty trivia is because, well, I'm trying to buy myself some time. You see, Valhalla Rising is a singularly unusual film. Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, best known for the excellent, unflinching Bronson, it stars Mikkelsen as an unnamed prisoner who is simply referred to as One-Eye (due to the fact that he, well, has only one eye, the other a hideous mass of scar tissue), captured by a ragged band of vikings in around 1000 AD, and used in primitive fighting games for gambling. He's a mute (literally), brooding brute of a figure, a vicious fighter who bloodily destroys his opponents. Eventually, One-Eye escapes in a visceral, violent uprising and takes in a young boy as a companion. One-Eye encounters a group of Scottish Crusaders seeking to spread the word of God, and joins them on their quest to Jerusalem. Unfortunately, their boat ends up off-course, and the band finds themselves in a strange new land filled with unseen dangers, not the least of which is possibly One-Eye himself.
Valhalla Rising is peculiar for many reasons. It's one of the quietest films I've ever encountered -- if there are more than 100 words spoken in its 90 minutes, I'd be stunned. Part of this is due to a protagonist who cannot speak, but its also due to the writers' (Refn and Roy Jacobsen) decision to make it a sparse, contemplative piece. In a way, there's a certain logic to it that's grounded in a dedication to realism that pervades the film -- if one stops and thinks about it, it's in fact quite likely that this small group of warriors and zealots would have little to speak about. As such, the film is full of long, silent shots of the group simply watching their surroundings, or trying to find the eventual unseen assailants. It makes sense. It's logical. Unfortunately, it's also somewhat dull at times.
Therein lies the greatest flaw in Valhalla Rising. It's a film dedicated to being an honest (or as honest as one can be based on historical fact and generous assumption) portrayal of a particular time and place. That effort is appreciable in an artistic sense, and it's aided by the fact that Valhalla is a visually splendid picture. Unfortunately, because there is surprisingly little action, and very little dialogue, the film drags -- badly at times. The spectacular cinematography serves as an occasional welcome distraction from the at-times plodding story, but the film makers never quite manages to be arresting or compelling enough to overcome its slowness.
The story is in an of itself similarly enigmatic. The action movie fan will find him or herself bitterly disappointed after the film's opening burst of violence -- and make no mistake, the first five minutes are shockingly violent. One-Eye is a fearsome and relentless fighter who, when coupled with his own cleverness, proves himself a terrifying opponent. He tears out throats with his teeth, snaps necks, bludgeons brains out -- all filmed with an unflinching lens. However, that crude violence is another part of the film's dedication to realism. But once they move beyond the grisly beginnings, the story unfolds at a crawl, full of strange, red-tinged hallucinatory dream sequences from One-Eye's mind that are either foreshadowing or memories -- it's never really clear. While the main thrust of the tale is One-Eye's curious decision to accompany the band to the Holy Land, it never really digs its feet in and establishes itself with purpose. While Valhalla Rising is fraught with stark imagery and cryptic symbolism, it feels unfocused, and doesn't tie it together enough to form a cohesive narrative.
It's all strangely fascinating as well as frustrating to watch, because Refn is clearly a skilled director. However, in his quest to make a film that's seen more as art than one would assume of its subject matter, he overreaches, and the film frequently staggers under its own pretenses. It starts to feel all too deliberate and forcibly arty, a cerebral exercise that's a bit too consciously obtuse. It's a shame, too, because it covers some truly intriguing themes, of religion, of intolerance, fears of the unknown, and of the Europeans' need to spread belief by force. All this is set against the mysterious One-Eye, and Mikkelsen must play the anti-zealot, a brutally eloquent, silent voice of reason in the midst of fanaticism. To his credit, he's excellent in his part, displaying a surprising amount of artistic deftness, considering it's a non-speaking part whose range consists of either enraged, confused, or somber. And yet he makes it work.
In fact, all of the performances are quite remarkable. Perhaps it's due to the limited amount of dialogue, which somehow adds extra weight to the rare spoken word. But everyone from the unnamed boy (Maarten Stevenson), to Gary Lewis, who plays the leader of the band of Crusaders, hits their notes just right. That, combined with the film's acute attention to detail, makes it perhaps far more engaging than it should be. That attention to detail, incidentally, is remarkable. Beyond the scenery, accents and dialogue, the costume design is perfect and, perhaps most unusual, everyone is dirty and kind of ugly. There's no Orlando Bloom-esque beauty to be found here. It's a grungy, filthy, hardened group of soldiers, replete with gnarled features and knife-cut hair.
All of this means that Valhalla Rising ultimately suffers from its storytelling, because frankly, it's a pretty impressive directorial effort in most ways. But it fails perhaps the most important test of a story -- despite its efforts to be artistically and intellectually stimulating, it frequently comes off as self-indulgent and, sadly, simply boring at times. It's a shame, too, because it's a gorgeous film filled with strong performances and unique perspectives. But in the end, it hurts itself with its interminable pretentiousness.
Originally review back in May, this review is being republished ahead of the movie's limited release this weekend.
TK writes about music and movies. He enjoys playing with dogs, raising the dead, and tacos. You can email him here.