“It’s a big tool for an actor to have words, or at least feelings. In this film I had neither.” That’s Mads Mikkelsen on his role of the mysterious “one-eye” in Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2009 film Valhalla Rising. Director Winding Refn started his career with the Pusher trilogy (1996-2005)- a rugged series of films set in the Copenhagen drug underworld, in which Mads Mikkelsen also starred and earned several awards as best actor – definitely worth checking out. He later did films like Bronson (2008), featuring a superb Tom Hardy before his big breakthrough a couple of years later, a film that might be equally surreal as Valhalla Rising in its approach to blur reality and the world of our dreams (or rather nightmares). Today, Winding Refn is of course known for his critically acclaimed film Drive (2011), a collaboration with Ryan Gosling, Only God forgives (2013), and his most recent violent firework: The Neon Demon (2016). All films that seem to slip from your grasp after a first consumption.
In Valhalla Rising, Mikkelsen and Winding Refn have teamed up again and take us on a bizarre odyssey set around 1096 in the Scottish Highlands. The plot follows a mute Norse warrior with the name ‘one-eye’ and his companion, a little boy, while they travel with a bunch of Christian Crusaders trying to find the Holy Land. What is striking from the first minute is the imagery of the film, in particular, the beautifully dismal landscape of the Scottish Highlands and the way Winding Refn frames it. There are countless still shots of hardened Norsemen co-existing with this environment, a bit like trees, no dialogue and only the roaring wind as soundtrack. He skillfully manages to create an intense sense of solitude and isolatedness that runs through the whole movie, which might be a reflection of his Danish heritage. In any way, the film has a distinctly Scandinavian feeling to it.
It only makes sense to add to this silent and rural ruggedness an equally silent and hard-boiled protagonist. Mads Mikkelsen’s character, who is first a prisoner of a Norwegian chieftain and used as a sort of gladiator in arranged fights with other clans, is the driving force behind the whole narrative. Mikkelsen’s performance is a brilliant example of how you can achieve maximum results by doing very little. Most of the time he “just stares” (it is fair to say that grasping an audience with your stares for 90 minutes is an art form in itself) when suddenly, BOOM, he frees himself from his chains and kills all his oppressors within seconds. But there seems to always be something going on in his head, yet what it is remains hidden to the audience.
Rather disappointing are the special effects. The few instances they come to use are during ultra-violent fighting scenes, another trademark of Winding Refn’s style. An axe or sword crashes into a human body and blood splashes everywhere. Unfortunately, it is clearly visible that the blood was inserted via computer, reminiscent of the TV-series Spartacus: Blood and Sand, completely undermining the authority of the narrative.
You’ll quickly realize that Valhalla Rising is not your average Viking flick. With its enigmatic main character, elusive storyline and overall feeling of a grotesque nightmare, it reminded me more of narratives like Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, rather than films and series of the supposedly same genre from recent years like Northmen: A Viking Sagaor Vikings and The Last Kingdom. This might be reflected in the fact that the film only made 30’000.- at Box Office. But don’t be discouraged by that. Winding Refn has always been a visually captivating director and Valhalla Rising is no exception to the rule. The movie convinces with its intense imagery and strong main character.