Valhalla Rising is an insanely atmospheric, slow-burning, contemplative, and violent story of an escaped slave (Mads Mikkelsen) who makes his way across the ocean in a very bizarre, very bloody journey of redemption(?) and/or fate(?). It’s kind of like something out of the repertoire of Terrence Malick or Lars von Trier, only I actually liked it. A lot. It’s probably not for everyone, but I dug the hell out of the gorgeous visuals, striking brutality, and methodical nature of the film.
It’s broken into six parts, and each one deals with a new section of the journey. Fair warning, I’ll be describing a lot of the movie, but trust me, it won’t encompass everything. A lot of the experience is the camerawork, visuals, and style, so my narration shouldn’t lessen any of the impact.
Part I: Wrath
It kind of has the atmosphere of a horror movie in some respects. I’m not exactly sure where they’re supposed to be (somewhere in Scotland, probably), but it’s up in the mountains, covered in fog, and windy as hell. I can almost feel the wind as it howls around the men wrapped in cloaks, leading around their enslaved warrior. The music is pretty much just a few eerie tones and drum beats that really make everything feel unsettling and dream-like. Given that it’s about a man in captivity forced to fight to the death every day while bound around the neck and tied to a pole, I’d say it’s fitting. Also, holy crap, it’s a brutal movie. A man gets beaten to death with a rock to the point his brain is showing, and another guy gets his guts ripped out and thrown on the ground in front of him while he’s tied to a boulder. Good stuff (For me; not so much for them.).
Refn is apparently quite fond of silent protagonists, isn’t he? The main character doesn’t utter a word in the entirety of the first part, and I doubt he’ll be giving any speeches any time soon. Being forced to defend his life on a daily basis has turned this guy into a very efficient killing machine, to boot. There’s no screwing around: If you come at him, he’ll literally eat the flesh from your neck and let it hang out of his mouth. I am not shitting you.
That’s pretty much what I’ve learned from Part I. One Eye (that’s right; he has, well, one eye) will silently allow you to enslave him for years until that one day he slits your throat with an arrowhead he found while bathing. Watch your back.
Part II: Silent Warrior
Early on, One Eye escapes his captors and comes back to inflict some vengeance. He, uh…doesn’t let them off easy. After going what I would consider temporarily insane, he sets off with the young boy of the chieftain who enslaved him. Along the way, they encounter some Christian Crusaders during their wanderings. When they realize One Eye isn’t a Christian, one of the Crusaders almost attempts to kill him, but is talked out of it since one of them knows One Eye just got finished doing this:
So, not wanting their own heads on a different set of pikes, they allow him to accompany them on their ship bound for Jerusalem. It’s a really short section, only about 10 minutes long.
Part III: Men of God
Once aboard the ship, their journey soon becomes a nightmare, as a never ending mist envelops them and drains them of all hope and courage. One Eye just sits around, dreaming about ocean water, his own face, and things that have yet to pass, all in a blood-red hue. I think that’s what all true bad asses dreamed about back then. Meanwhile, the Crusaders start to suspect a curse is upon them, and they finger the boy as the cause of all their misfortune. I’ll just say that trying to remedy that doesn’t go over well with One Eye.
Part IV: The Holy Land
Well, the Holy Land doesn’t turn out to be quite as holy as they thought it would be. Of course, that’s because they didn’t make it to Jerusalem. They never knew what direction they were sailing in, so they could be anywhere, really. They spend this section of the movie exploring the wilderness, hunting, and getting irritated at their predicament. It’s actually a pretty idyllic setting, but something is off-putting about their surroundings. The one constant that has haunted them up to this point – the mist – is still present, as is the ominous score.
Part V: Hell
Well, everything kind of goes to shit in this section. Everyone starts going mad from starvation or something, and one dude even rapes another one while he’s face down in the muck. Not sure where that came from, exactly, but if there was to be a closet man-rapist among this bunch, it would always be that guy. He just has that closet man-rapist look about him.
After the raping, they congregate and figure out that there’s no food, and they’re all kind of screwed. The leader of the Crusaders keeps telling them that this is all God’s plan, and that they’ll forge a new Jerusalem, blah, blah. Everyone knows this trip is a bust, and the group splinters. Some by walking away, others by bleeding out of the top of their head.
Part VI: The Sacrifice
The sixth part is the final chapter, and I think I’ll leave it undescribed. It’s not that there’s some crazy Shyamalan-esque twist or anything, but I feel like I’ve narrated enough already. In my own defense, even though I’ve told you about a lot of the beats of the movie, it doesn’t really matter. I could describe every single thing that happens, and you still wouldn’t get the flow or feel of it. Refn followed this up with Drive, which is another awesome flick. I fully expect Only God Forgives (his next one with Ryan Gosling) to kick all kinds of ass. Refn is like the perfect mix of auteur and a more standard director. Valhalla Rising is streaming on Netflix, so if you have an hour-and-a-half to spare, definitely check it out.