If “art is an act of violence” as the uncompromising Nicolas Winding Refn has attested, then his vicious Viking abstraction Valhalla Rising must surely belong in the Louvre.
Cut to the bone in terms of narrative and dialogue, the only thing harsher than the inevitability of (often brutal) death in Refn’s powerful and primeval journey into apocalyptic dread is the bleakly beautiful Scottish landscapes in which the film was shot.
Coming off the back of Bronson (2008), Refn’s penchant for anti-heroes takes us back to 1000AD and Mads Mikkelsen’s One-Eye, a mute Norse savage who wreaks a terrible vengeance against his captors and, following his escape, agrees to accompany a group of Viking Christians in search of the Holy Land.
One-Eye’s only companion is a young boy (Maarten Stevenson), who believes the silent warrior has been delivered to this godforsaken place from hell. The group’s devout leader (Ewan Stewart) is confident that, by accompanying them on their quest across the ocean, One-Eye can be cleansed of his sins. The land they finally arrive at, however, is far from holy and no amount of faith can prepare them for the dawning realisation that they are trapped in purgatory.
Valhalla Rising feels like a curious mash-up of the nihilism of Bergman and the bloodthirstiness of Mel Gibson, while its stark reminder of man’s hubristic folly in trying to conquer nature is Aguirre, The Wrath of God-level Werner Herzog.
The film’s hellish, pared-back arthouse aesthetic is certainly not to everyone’s taste and might in part explain its disastrous box office returns, but such is the power of Mikkelsen’s towering central performance and Morten Søborg’s arresting cinematography that Valhalla Rising avoids becoming the cinematic equivalent of a coffee table book.
The insanity that grips the Crusaders is most effectively portrayed during the film’s central chapter (it is split into six parts with self-explanatory titles such as “silent warrior” and “hell”), in which their voyage across the ocean is met with disaster when a thick fog shrouds both the boat and their collective reasoning.
A crucifix is erected upon finally arriving at this new land, but it offers no safety from the arrows that are regularly loosed at them from the forest by unknown assailants, while the dearth of animals or fruit also eats into their dwindling faith.
Their growing despair is allowed to manifest when they drink a psychotropic brew and their base instincts are unleashed in a scene that has the look and feel of a Godspeed You! Black Emperor video and could well have served as an influence on Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England (2013).
Mikkelsen is often filmed side on in extreme close-up, his immovable features set against the equally implacable landscape. Scotland has arguably never looked more alien or more beautiful; its unforgiving nature cruelly exposes the human weaknesses of the Christians, particularly the leader who is seemingly willing to sacrifice anyone in order to build the new Jerusalem he so blindly believes possible.
Perhaps tellingly, the final two remaining Christians, when everything else is lost, take to following the heathen One-Eye, whether it be out of fear of death, an utter loss of faith or both.
The success of Refn’s follow-up Drive (2011) has cast a large shadow over the director’s career and sadly pulled the focus away from the likes of Valhalla Rising. It’s a pity, as the film is powerfully executed and arguably a distillation of his oeuvre so far.