Film Review: Valhalla Rising (2010)

In 1975, a controversial piece of performance art, entitled Interior Scroll, was conceived and performed by renowned visual artist Carolee Schneeman. At the exhibition, critics both condemned and applauded her artistic statement, which entails, the artist—naked as the day she was born—slowly unfurling a scroll from inside her vagina; espousing the feminist tirade written so angrily upon it.

Hence the name, Interior Scroll…because it was inside of her.

Now, I’ll admit, I’m resistant to performance art, in general, but I just don’t get it. It may be that I’m not taking into account the time period in which the piece was performed…or simply that my machismo is suspect of feminist diatribe. However, in spite of my stance, I do feel there is a place for performance art in the world; but the line between that place and pretentious, self-serving, bovine-feces is as thin as the estrogen parchment that was coiled within Schneeman’s whispering eye.

This brings me to Valhalla Rising, which has nothing to do with moist manifestos or feminism at all. It does, however, walk the line that separates art and bullshit; it’s really up to the viewer to determine what side it falls on.

Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn (writer and director of the Pusher Trilogy and the superb film, Bronson), Valhalla Rising is a spiritual yet savage journey into the souls of its characters. Mads Mikkelsen stars as the mute warrior, One-Eye, named so, for having only one eye.

Hence the name, One-Eye…because he is a Cyclops.

Madness, hallucinogens, mutiny, transcendence, premonitions and excessive fog machines all await him before he meets his destiny.

A slave, forced to fight other slaves to the death, One-Eye is a fearsome combatant in the mud pit. Now, the director knows how to film a fight scene and the opening of the film is brutally violent (no doubt he learned a thing or two after filming the even more violent Bronson). You’ll be hooked into this movie immediately after the first few minutes.

In addition to being a badass pit fighter, One-Eye also has precognitive dreams (in striking red overtones, no less). He is a killing machine who knows the future so it’s understandable that he is feared and treated like a dangerous animal by his captors. The only one who seems to care for him is a boy named Are, who speaks for him throughout the film.

Ok, so after some other shit, One-Eye and Are end up falling in with a band of Christian Vikings on a crusade to Jerusalem, only to end up on a mysterious and sinister island.

Now, there isn’t a lot of conversation in this film. As I stated before, the main character One-Eye, is mute and you’re left to glean what information you can about him and the plot from the rest of cast…as they sit…and stare off…into…the distance…grunting cryptic…statements…all the while looking…really…exhausted. Seriously, everyone in this movie looks and acts like an old man who lived through every disaster in the world, even the little kid!

Not that the director is so pretentious that he doesn’t use a script or anything. In Refn’s defense, with his film Bronson, you’re treated to Tom Hardy’s riveting performance as the real life “Charlie Bronson”, reportedly England’s most violent prisoner. He narrates his own story like a psychotic vaudevillian showman equally charming and unnerving.

But to be fair Bronson is a character study as opposed to an allegory such as is the case with this film, and though Valhalla Rising doesn’t contain much dialogue, like Carolee Schneeman’s vagina, it has a lot to say.

Symbolism permeates the film and if you’re not up on your history or Norse mythology you might be left scratching your head a bit. Here’s a hint, Odin, the king of the gods for Vikings, only has one eye (I read a lot of Thor comics growing up). The meaning is purposefully left ambiguous, which I kind of liked because I hate it when a movie thinks I’m a moron (as if I didn’t get my education from comic books, helloooo). I also hate when a movie pretends to have a point but really is just a mess. Luckily, this never really comes across like that. Whether you understand it or not, you know there is a deeper meaning behind all the confusion; Southland Tales, this is not.

Visually, Valhalla Rising is amazing. It might take a moment to get used to the weird color effects (I don’t know shit about making a movie so “weird color effects” is about as technical as I get) but I can’t say when the last time scenery looked this beautifully dismal; this gorgeously gloomy…this…this…pretty shitty (?).

Anyway, the movie is just cool looking, that’s really the best way to describe it. It just looks cool. It’s refreshing to see such a stunning film that doesn’t depend on special effects too much. It’s clear the director likes experimenting with colors as is evident in his other works…works, such as Bronson.

Minimalism at its best, Refn just uses the environment, cold color hues, and­ mist…lots and lots of mist…to set the dark tone of the film; the aesthetics are almost surreal. I imagined the band Neurosis using visuals from this film in a concert­ or something experimental.

By the way, if you listen to Neurosis then there is a good chance that you will like this movie; they should’ve done the soundtrack. Not that the current soundtrack doesn’t work for the film; the ambient score is appropriately moody and quite jarring when it needs to be. I just like Neurosis, is all. Someone please take a Neurosis song and splice it together with scenes from this film and then put it on YouTube and send me notification that it has been completed. I’m far too lazy.

Wearing its indie pride on its tattooed sleeve, the film is broken up into six different segments, each one thematically touching on One-Eye’s journey. Despite this clichÈ, I liked that there were chapters in this film because even though the movie is only 90 minutes long, due to the slowness of the story, you might need to take a break and finish watching it later or watch something else in between (like Bronson). If you have a short attention span like me and are easily distracted…then…you…um…

You know what?

Valhalla Rising is really good…but Bronson was just more entertaining.

It’s just less work. I’m getting too old to sit down and try and figure it all out. Maybe if I watch it with a friend I could appreciate it more and have an intellectual conversation about it over some coffee at some hipster café; where everyone is a jaded artist and cooler than me. We could use the film as a platform to bitch about the problems of the world, offering one-sided solutions and then pull scrolls out of each others twats and assholes and scoff at anyone who’s stupid enough to state the obvious or brave enough to comment on the absurdity of our artistic expression.

Maybe then I wouldn’t be pulling my hair out trying to write this horrible review, because I do like the movie…but I fell asleep to it 3 times! I don’t want to be treated like a moron but sometimes I just want a little less subtext and introspection in my Viking movies.

I highly recommend Valhalla Rising for people who like films like Aguirre, Apocalypto, and El Topo, but if you prefer Chopper, Snatch, or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest then watch Bronson instead.

Love it, hate it, but please respect it; Carolee Schneeman’s Interior Scroll has found its way into many Art history books (not literally, thank God) as required reading and has been recognized as an influential work in contemporary art.

What does that have to do with this movie? I have no idea.

Valhalla Rising gets 6 out of 10

Bronson gets 8 out of 10

'til next time...