Mads Mikkelsen plays One-Eye, a mute warrior, supposedly from Hell, who has been captured by Norse chief Barde (Alexander Morton). He is made to take part in a series of bloody battles before he manages to escape from his captors. He is followed by a boy named Are (Maarten Stevenson) and along the way they join a Viking troop, on their way to the Holy Land. Their ship is covered by a fog and some superstition arises about where they are truly headed. The film, broken into six chapters, labels the place they arrive at as Hell. After their arrival the film takes a series of strange turns as the Vikings and One-Eye find their true selves and are hunted by Native Indians. As stated by Refn it's a story of nature vs man, but it can also be linked to Norse mythology itself. Valhalla (a hall in which dead heroes feast with Odin) is the central theme of the film and One-Eye is Odin (the Norse God of War who placed one of his eyes into Mimir's Well) himself. Could the film be a portrayal of One-Eye's ascent to Valhalla? An ascent made complete by an ultimate act of martyrdom, in order to ensure the safety of Are? It's a film with multiple layers and readings - spiritual, religious, historic... and as such it requires multiple viewings. Refn also states how the movie is about "looking beyond the stars" and "becomes like a drug".
But of course, this can make for a pretty weary experience. Valhalla Rising is a masterfully composed piece but its constant pauses for thought are at odds with its initial promise. The film has an 18 certificate, a certificate that's pretty tough to secure with todays more liberal BBFC. But in the opening ten minutes its secured that rating with just two battle scenes. And that's it, for the rest of the movie. Bones crunch, heads are bashed in (if you thought Irreversible (Gaspar Noé, 2002) was bad, wait until you see the brain smashing in this one) and guts are spilled. It's the only violence to speak of and it's wince inducing. The rest of the film takes its time carefully unfolding and presenting us with metaphors and illusions of grandeur that can prove bothersome. It's intelligent enough and handled with skill but by the time an hour has passed you'll want the movie to stop pondering so much and start spilling some blood again. It's the one flaw in an otherwise perfect piece, but that's probably because the rest of the film is purely aesthetic.
Actually, that's only half true. A large amount of the films success lies on Mikkelsen's shoulders. He's totally silent and confined to small spaces for the duration of the film but his steely glare and upright posture are enough to make you believe that he could wipe out a small army with just his hands. Luckily he's handy with a blade and the scenes where One-Eye dispatches Vikings in a matter of seconds are heart-stopping. Some have attributed the Kuleshov Effect to his performance, and it's certainly a valid argument. A man with no past and no future, Mikkelsen makes the character believable, terrifying and layered but each viewer will bring different stories to his character. He's in nearly every shot of the film and is totally captivating - it could be a career best. The supporting cast don't quite match him but fortunately the screenplay has been stripped down to the bare essentials, with the majority of feelings evoked though the scenery.
Indeed, the real beauty does lie in the design. The location work is amazing, every shot perfectly capturing the misty Scottish mountains and clear rivers. Everything looks so natural, the dark atmosphere of the grasslands echoing the feelings and intentions of the characters. Morten Søborg's cinematography is haunting and some of the best in recent years, eclipsed only by Roger Deakins work on The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik, 2007). The score by Peter Kyed and Peter Peter is rousing and provocative, using distortion and exaggerated wind effects to simultaneously chill and engage the audience, whilst also recalling The Evil Dead (Sam Raimi, 1981) and Antichrist (Lars von Trier, 2009). This will be of no consequence to the audience members that find Valhalla Rising to be both boring and pretentious however.
Ultimately it's a film that will prove to be divisive and its slow, thoughtful pacing and scenes of extreme violence are bound to ensure it never becomes anything more than a cult oddity. But it's refreshing to see such a bold, distinctive work in contemporary cinema that feels untampered with and sticks to the strength of its convictions. Depending on your point of view it's either alienating or mesmerising from start to finish. I found it to be a work of brave, brutal genuis, sometimes tedious and unsure of its footing but ultimately rewarding in a way that is all to rare today. Savor it.