Valhalla Rising was going to be the film that put Refn back on my radar or would otherwise serve as definite proof that Bronson was just a lucky coincidence. It was this uncertainty that lead to my somewhat reluctant attitude towards actually sitting down and watching Valhalla Rising. Expectations were rather high and I wasn't really looking forward to being disappointed. Luckily it didn't have to come that far, Refn easily exceeded my expectations with his latest.
I wasn't too impressed by Refn's first film (Pusher), the trailers for the sequels and follow-ups did little to convince me otherwise. Until he unleashed Bronson onto the world that is. A truly stylish, fun, and wicked little film firmly lodged amongst my favorites. With Valhalla Rising he seems to take it even one step further, you won't hear me complaining though. That said, he'll be leaving for Hollywood for his next project so I guess he will be taking a few steps back on the experimentation ladder.
Valhalla Rising might be promoted as an action flick (the local DVD cover looks like a 300 rip-off), but it's far from that. Safe a few truly brutal man-to-man fights early on, Refn's newest is a slow, brooding, and contemplative piece of cinema. Older film fans will happily giggle when they hear it being compared with Herzog's Aguirre, those more up-to-date with contemporary Asian cinema will without a doubt point to Toyoda's come-back film Blood Of Rebirth. Both in style and subject, there are plenty of common elements making both films perfect companion pieces.
Valhalla Rising sees a lone battler and a young boy joining a group of crusaders. They set off to the Holy Land, instead they end up in a thick mist taking them off course and dropping them off in unknown territory. While they try to claim the new land for their god, one by one the crusaders fall at the hands of an unknown force. It's a pretty rough synopsis, at the same time the film isn't really all that interested in bringing a well-rounded, coherent storyline, so why should I?
Bronson was a visual masterpiece, Valhalla Rising easily tops that. The grim, misty sceneries and downplayed color palette create a dark, menacing and relentless atmosphere that is maintained throughout the whole film. Some short bursts of visual trickery include landmark shots and strong use of the color red, ripping the film apart and keeping the audience on their toes. Powerful stuff no matter how simple some of the effects may be. Add some tasteful slow-motion scenes and the result is a beautiful film to behold.
The soundtrack is equally powerful. Low-hum ambient based on dark soundscapes and eerie tunes fill the background of the film. Not quite original but very well executed and extremely effective. The music swells whenever things get more hectic, creating an extra level of tension where needed. On the whole, it would've been cool to see Refn stretch a bit further musically, but I guess that would be asking a bit much from him.
The acting also deserves a mention. Mads Mikkelsen's character is simply epic. Without uttering a single word he erupts off the screen, laying down one of the meanest and toughest-looking personalities I've ever witnessed. While he seems inherently good-natured, his fighting spirit has him kill without a flinch in mere seconds. The rest of the cast is strong too but is easily eclipsed but Mikkelsen's stellar performance.
Valhalla Rising is all about the journey. The film provides few answers and has no real goal to reach. The focus lies on the trip of Mikkelsen's character and the characters that surround him. Most of the film is spent in luscious landscapes and against stunning backgrounds, letting the audiovisual impulses do all the talking. It's a film that allows for multiple interpretations and serious debate afterward, at least if that's your kind of thing.
The general reception of Refn's latest film hasn't been too positive, though that's mostly due to the horrid marketing surrounding it. If you go in expecting a fight flick you will be seriously disappointed. Valhalla Rising is one of those slumber films, set up as a trip that absorbs you for a good 90 minutes and leaves a lot in the hands and minds of its audience. If that's your thing then this film will probably blow you away.
I hope this isn't Refn's final experimental film as he shows a true talent for this kind of thing. This film is a solid, well-made, and impressive trip that reaches back to our more primitive emotions, focusing a lot more on atmosphere and experience, rather than plot and characters. It won't be to everyone's liking, but if you're looking for something different this is a solid recommendation.