I’d read several negative reviews of Valhalla Rising online, and I’m actually rather glad. Because I was able to find out ahead of time what it is NOT – a rollicking loot-and-pillage Viking tale. It has Vikings, but if you go into it expecting the usual battles-and-horned-helmets fare, you’ll be disappointed.
What you will find is a bleak, violent, strangely beautiful and often enigmatic film, with interesting explorations on what fear, deprivation, and the unfamiliar can do to people.
The movie starts somewhere in coastal Northern Europe, sometime in the Middle Ages. Christianity is prevalent but there are still bands of pagans about and religious tensions are high. None of that matters much at first to the silent warrior chained to a post in the middle of a field. He’s the captive of a group of pagans, and every so often he’s pitted against another warrior in fight-to-the-death battles using only bare hands and any handy rocks. When the nameless, one-eyed warrior isn’t in a brutal fight, he’s kept in a cage. After escaping his captors, the warrior, christened One Eye by a slave boy who accompanies him, meets up with a band of Viking Christians. The Vikings, having run out of pagan villages to sack and slaughter in the name of religion, are headed off to Jerusalem to join the Crusades and think One Eye (whose reputation has preceded him) would make a dandy Crusader.
But the Vikings’ ship is soon adrift without wind for its sails, lost in a thick mist. The ship drifts, aimless and the men start turning on each other or committing suicide by drinking seawater. Eventually it arrives in a strange land that is most certainly not Jerusalem, and which seems to be deserted…until unseen attackers start picking off the surviving Vikings, who wonder if they’ve ended up in Hell.
Valhalla Rising is unlike any movie I’ve seen in quite a long time, and easier to define by what it isn’t rather than what it is. It’s artsy with its title cards for the various sections of the story, red-tinged segments that may be One Eye’s glimpses of the future, and minimal dialogue, yet it never feels like an art film, probably because it takes place entirely outdoors. The events get less explanation as the story goes on, but the unanswered questions are enigmatic rather than frustrating. Refreshingly, it avoids black-and-white characterizations – life is nasty whether you’re a pagan, Christian, or something else altogether.
The Scottish locations are alternately bleak and beautiful, but always brutal. (Even the most gorgeous surroundings will do you no good if you’re equipped for battle rather than hunting and have no way to hunt game and don’t know what plants are edible.) The cinematography is excellent and makes the low-budget movie look fantastic. The music is strange, a sort of artsy techno-metal, but suits the movie’s look and its creeping sense of dread.
The acting is all fine – most of all, the actors look the part, rather than like Hollywood people with some dirt smudged on their faces and their hair mussed. Best of all is Mads Mikkelsen as the enigmatic One Eye, who tells us both everything and nothing about his character in an entirely wordless performance. No matter what brutality he may take part in, it’s impossible to look away from him whenever he’s on screen.
Valhalla Rising is definitely not a film for everyone, but if you’re in the right mood it can be a fascinating experience.
The DVD’s only extra is its extremely misleading trailer, which shows all the action scenes and makes it look like The Thirteenth Warrior 2: Viking Boogaloo, and also contains some big spoilers.