It risks understatement to say that Nicolas Winding Refn is an acquired taste. This Danish madman of cinema has (with works like the Pusher trilogy and Bronson) carved out a niche for himself very different from that of his even-more-insane countryman Lars Von Trier. Refn seems to have a knack for quiet, contemplative moments that belie a deep unease or psychological disturbance that his main characters either suffer from or are all too happy to inflict upon others. Moments of traditional, beautifully shot formalism stand alongside scenes more suited to down-and-dirty, hand-held independent productions that delve deep into the ambiguity of the mind (or rot of the soul, perhaps). While his 2009 film Valhalla Rising is not a horror movie, there are certainly enough unsettling elements and graphic bloodletting to please exploitation fans who don't mind getting a little bit of arthouse peanut butter in their dark bloody chocolate.
Our tale begins in the high, remote mountains of Scotland in the Middle Ages, as we meet a mute warrior known, quite aptly and simply, as One Eye (Mads Mikkelsen) who has been enslaved by a small band of pagans. His captors force him to do battle with other such slaves for sport they can gamble on amongst themselves; think of a gladiator or, more accurately, the "mandingo fighting" in Tarantino's Django Unchained. One Eye is a powerful fighter who never loses, who never speaks or makes a noise of any kind...he simply destroys the opponents he is pointed towards before being returned once again to a small cage. He is dangerous enough that he is never unchained, not even when the young boy (Maarten Stevenson) of the group gives him food and drink. Shortly after being sold to a new master -- and after we've watched One Eye brutally dispatch a number of his opponents -- this slave takes matters into his own hands and stages a quick and bloody escape in which he slaughters all of his captors but the boy. With the boy following, he sets off across the foreboding land (Refn makes this cold, muddy, foggy and rocky landscape wholly unpleasant to imagine trying to survive in) towards an uncertain future. One Eye and his young charge come across a small band of Christian Vikings who intend to sail to Jerusalem, where they can do their duty as "God's own soldiers." Knowing of his reputation and realizing having another skilled fighter around wouldn't be a bad thing, they invite him and the boy along on their journey. Now numbering around 10 travelers, they take a boat across the water through an almost supernatural fog before arriving at not their desired destination, but what appears to be North America.
Things go badly for pretty much everyone involved.
And (it must be said) they do...so...SLOWLY. This is a fair warning to all.
Valhalla Rising is not an action flick even though it boasts some impressive (though fairly brief) fight scenes. It is not a historical drama even though the sense of time and place is precise and immediate. It is not a whole lot of things, honestly; a large part of that is the fact that the film has less than any interest in letting you know EXACTLY what is going on a lot of the time, or even what the point of the whole exercise is. There's only so much to the story, the characters, or anything resembling a traditional through-line that you'd find in most movies; it's essentially just an art film with exploitation elements, and that's pretty much it. It IS interested in deeper concepts such as the dark, twisted soul of mankind and his compulsion to subjugate and conquer his surroundings (as well as his fellow man) and the instinct to do so through the use of fear, religion, or violence. Sometimes all three at once, as man is wont to do.
Refn directs with a sure hand and confident vision, and I have to say that would be the main thing that kept me invested; the film may be fairly dripping with ambiguity yet Refn somehow maintains a strong sense of specificity in whatever it is he's put onscreen at any given moment. There are moments of pure cinema throughout, full-bodied and immersive as you experience what's onscreen. The eye Refn has for nature and landscape (gorgeously shot by DP Morten Soborg) is downright Malickian in the incredible sense of awe it inspires by simply gazing upon it, if considerably more oppressive than such a comparison might seem.
The cast aside from Mikkelsen and Stevenson are adequate and play their parts well enough but it's hard to see them as anything but future corpses, really; they serve the same purpose the supporting cast does in a slasher film, and the audience essentially knows they're just marking time until they meet whatever unpleasant demise that surely awaits them. Stevenson is good as the young boy and has an enjoyably understated rapport with Mikkelsen's One Eye, who effortlessly illustrates why he's become one of the more interesting character actors around as of late. There's just something about him -- a charisma, certainly, but the easiest way to explain it is that he knows how to do a whole lot by doing (seemingly) nothing...but you can't keep your eyes off him (fans of his amazing turn on NBC's stellar show Hannibal already know this well). Refn takes full advantage this by providing many profile shots of his star (and his horribly scarred visage) contrasted against stunning vistas of cold, remote beauty, and the result is highly impressive if not warmly welcoming to behold.
Horror fans should enjoy the dark nature of the film, not to mention the odd moment of insanity here and there (the group takes what appears to be some kind of psychedelic trip at one point, and it's fucking nuts without being a light-show of color and sound...it's more the kind of bad trip you find yourself in when you're frying balls and can't get out of your own head, or so I have been told). The violence, when it comes, is hard-hitting and as grim as it comes; there's a disembowling that is finished off by hand, and I'd imagine it'll have even the most jaded gorehound blinking in surprise. I must point out that there's a fair amount of CGI blood but that accounts for only half of the wet stuff as the rest is all practical FX.
The Blu-ray I watched is a Canadian release from Entertainment One as a region-free disc in 1080p/2.35:1 aspect ratio that looks absolutely superb, with fine detail and clarity (again, the stunning photography really stands out crisp and clear here) in the image, and although the colors are muted throughout this is obviously by Refn's design. The 5.1 surround DTS is atmospheric and really works well with the visuals to further immerse the viewer into the film, as effects and dialogue (of which there's remarkably little; I'd bet there are less than 200 lines in the entire flick) sound strong and clear. There's only one bonus feature, "The Making of Valhalla Rising," which runs 22 minutes long and alternates on-location video with interview footage of Refn talking about various aspects of the production, including just how difficult making the entire film in Scotland was for the cast and crew at times, the genesis of the story, etc. It's a tad dry and not terribly entertaining, but a decent enough behind the scenes look at the production.
As I stated at the beginning, Refn is an acquired taste, and Valhalla Rising will certainly not be for everyone. If you're expecting a muscular, traditionally exciting example of the swords n' shields genre, sorry -- you're shit out of luck here. If you can stomach the idea of a moody, quiet journey to a long ago place and time (with deeply ingrained weirdness throughout), there's much to enjoy in this strange, bloody tale. Anyone who wants to see the flick Terrence Malick would make after getting into Hunter Thompson's personal stash and binge-watching Vikings, look no further. The result is simultaneously maddening and mesmerizing, but never less than completely fascinating.