Sunday, May 23, 2010

Review - Valhalla Rising

Nicholas Winding Refn's Valhalla Rising is a remarkable piece of cinema – vivid, intense and utterly uncompromising. Whether or not the film is actually any good is another matter entirely, but it's certainly a film that deserves to be experienced and discussed. Set in the Scottish highlands sometime in the early Middle Ages, the film is a strange Viking odyssey that defies easy categorisation. At its centre is an astonishing piece of physical acting by Mads Mikkelsen who plays the savage warrior One-Eye, so named for the injury that has left him partially blind. That disability hasn't hampered his skills as a warrior, however, and for some years he has been held prisoner by a group of Norse pagans, who use him to win violent fighting matches with men from other tribes. One-Eye is tethered to a post by a chain around his neck during these bouts, but he still manages to kill every competitor with brutal efficiency.

Refn is at his best when hitting his audience with the visceral impact of violence, and he doesn't pull any punches during these sequences. As his fighters grapple in the mud, Refn captures the breaking of bones in fine detail, with the amped-up sound design playing a significant role in proceedings. Throughout Valhalla Rising, Refn seems to come to life when depicting acts of violence, and later in the film he'll spare us nothing in depicting axes being plunged into flesh, throats being sliced, or a man being disembowelled. Having said that, you may be surprised to hear that such violence actually commands only a small portion of the film's overall running time, and Valhalla Rising is more of a spiritual journey, which is where the film's problems start to become evident.

When he kills his captors and earns his freedom, One-Eye sets out into the wilderness, with only a small boy (Maarten Stevenson) for company. As One-Eye is mute, The Boy acts as the warrior's voice, while he can offer the youngster protection in the dangerous hills, and soon they happen upon a group of Christian crusaders, who decide a man with One-Eye's fighting skills could be very useful as they embark upon their long journey to Jerusalem. They are driven by blind faith in the riches that await them as God's warriors, but in the land of the blind, Refn seems to indicate, the one-eyed man is king. The director takes great pains throughout Valhalla Rising to imbue his film with a sense of the mythical, the epic. The picture is divided into chapters, all given titles heavy with a sense of foreboding – 'Wrath', 'Hell', 'The Sacrifice' – and One-Eye is established as a kind of spiritual figure, prone to startling visions, shot in blood-red hues by the director.

That the film fails to live up to these highfalutin aims is down to a number of factors. The film stalls horribly during a long middle section in which the Christians, One-Eye and The Boy set sail for Jerusalem, and quickly find themselves lost in a dense and seemingly never-ending mist. There is much debate about whether this is some kind of curse that the two strangers have brought upon them, and when one of the Christians attempts to kill The Boy, One-Eye intervenes violently. But for the most part in this inordinately long sequence, nothing happens, and while Refn tries to stir up the atmosphere with a series of lighting effects, he can't enliven this stodgy passage. When the group finally disembarks and find themselves in some strange new world, the film starts to regain its footing, but it never quite regains the intensity of its opening chapters. The men fall into degradation and despair as their 'New Jerusalem' fails to materialise, and they find themselves hunted from within the jungle by unseen foes, but Refn lacks the ability of filmmakers like Malick or Herzog to really exploit the natural world around his characters.

Despite that shortfall, there's no question that Nicholas Winding Refn is a seriously talented filmmaker, and Valhalla Rising certainly bears that out on occasion. The harsh and moody cinematography is breathtaking, and Refn's strikingly imaginative compositions frequently produce some searing images. He does have problems with his pacing, though, and the lack of characterisation or context makes it very hard to endure the film's relentlessly grim tone. We know nothing of One-Eye or The Boy beyond what we see them do, and the Christian characters are similarly poorly defined – when one was killed in the mud late on, I thought it was another character who later turned up alive and well. Valhalla Rising, then, is a case of style over substance, but it does have a few unforgettable individual moments, and you have to admire Refn's determination to stay true to his own vision, no matter where it may lead him. If he continues to take such a bold and distinctive approach to all of his projects, I have no doubt there will be great films in his future.