Writer/director Nicholas Winding Refn's undeniably brutal 2008 biopic "Bronson" impressed the hell out of me, which immediately prompted a thorough investigation into the gifted director's critically-acclaimed "Pusher" trilogy. And while these four intensely entertaining films are beyond brilliant, nothing could have prepared me for Refn's 2009 Norse mythology flick "Valhalla Rising", a picture that has permanently cemented itself within the confines of my tiny, celluloid-saturated mind. I'm still puzzling over its cryptic images, it's downtrodden finale. I honestly can't get it out of my head.
Using the tried-and-true "mysterious wanderer with no name" formula as a foundation for a perplexing journey into madness of men, an adventure that manages to impress despite the fact that most of the film is drenched in silence. In fact, the first fifteen minutes of the film are actually very quiet, that is, except for the gut-wrenching sound of ripping flesh and shattered bone. And while I wouldn't go as far as to label "Valhalla Rising" as a pulse-pounding, thrill-a-minute action flick, there are several memorable scenes that incorporate a generous splash of blood and heaping helping of good, old-fashioned adrenaline. If your pulse doesn't race during the picture's opening fights, you might want to invest in a coffin.
As far as I can surmise, the mystifying storyline concerns itself with a mysterious warrior called One-Eye (Mads Mikkelsen) a man possessed of an abnormal amount of strength, agility, and determination. After being captured by a rugged group of warriors, our stoic hero is forced to fight for his life while tethered to a wooden pole in the middle of an enormous mud puddle. Much to his captors' collective horror, One-Eye makes quick work of their finest fighters, leaving the perplexed people no choice but to "take him away". Not surprisingly, he soon escapes, leaving a gory trail of mutilated bodies in his wake.
From this point, things tend to get a little bizarre. Although their relationship is never fully explained, One-Eye is soon accompanied by a peculiar blonde-haired boy who seems to understand his violent companion better than anyone else on the entire planet. Whenever someone poses a question to One-Eye, his answers are delivered through his pint-sized mouthpiece, whose responses seem to suggest that the duo communicate on a purely telepathic level. After a tense encounter with a squadron of murderous Christian soldiers, lone wolf and cub soon find themselves on a boat headed directly towards the so-called "Holy land". What they don't know, of course, is that their journey has taken an expected turn for the worse.
"Valhalla Rising" is a very slow film. A very, very slow film. There are many long stretches of absolutely nothing: no dialogue, no character interaction, no Viking-related shenanigans -- just lots and lots of wandering from one place to another. However, as strange as it may sound, Refn has the uncanny ability to make all of this pointlessly meandering seem strangely threatening, though this may have more to do with Peter Kyed and Peter Peter's villainous industrial score than anything else. Several sequences sandwiched in-between these frequent bouts of emptiness seem to make perfect sense, while others leave you scratching your head in total confusion. And just when you think you've finally figured out where the film might be headed, the surviving members of this ill-fated party ingest an extremely potent hallucinogenic beverage, resulting a disorienting collection of scenes that makes you second guess your theories.
Not everyone is going to like "Valhalla Rising", and it's pretty easy to understand why. Unless you truly appreciate fringe cinema or have a wicked hard-on for Gus Van Sant-inspired pacing, there's really not a lot for people to sink their teeth into. The hero never speaks, there's no particular plot to speak of, and the ending is as depressing as they come. However, thanks to a subtly affecting performance by Mads Mikkelsen and some overwhelmingly violent fight sequences, these slower moments don't seem quite as tedious as they may sound. Nicholas Winding Refn is an exciting figure in modern independent cinema, and "Valhalla Rising" is a startling, mind-blowing success. I would be very surprised if you ever see anything like it ever again.