Tuesday, September 14, 2010

In short: Valhalla Rising (2009)

It's the early Middle Ages, in Scotland. A mute, one-eyed man - called, if called at all "One Eye" - (Mads Mikkelsen) has been the captive of a small clan of people prone to sitting around staring into the emptiness of the Highlands for years. They use his disturbing prowess at fighting in ritual fights against other clans, but treat the man at best as a very dangerous animal. A boy (Maarten Stevenson) of the clan helps One Eye escape his chains, giving him the opportunity to slaughter his captors quite effectively.

Afterwards, One Eye and the boy wander through the hills until they meet a small group of violently minded Christians who are, as they say, on their way to the Holy Land. The man and the boy join the group, and soon find themselves on a ship bound wherever their hosts think that Holy Land might be. One Eye is given to visions with an undertone of doom, so he doesn't seem at all surprised when their ship gets stuck in an unnatural fog bank that envelopes the vessel for days on end. Some of his companions soon think that One Eye is cursed and leading them all into hell, but the man is not the sort of person one wins a violent encounter with.

After a long time, the fog lifts, and the group finds itself in a place that might be America, or hell. Obviously, danger awaits, most of it of a more spiritual nature, but there are also arrows.

An audience expecting Nicolas Winding Refn's Valhalla Rising to be the movie equivalent to Viking Metal (not that there's anything wrong with that for me, mind you) will probably be disappointed by the film, as will friends of films with obvious and "realistic" (whatever that means) plotting that make themselves so clear their contents might as well be just read about instead of experienced.

Refn's film is quite unlike that sort of movie. It's more of a very violent art house film that shows enticing possibilities for more than one interpretation of its meaning, but isn't willing to play the meaning-reducing game of allegory. Which doesn't mean that there aren't elements of allegory to be found here - it would need a certain type of IMDB reviewer to miss the religious connotations - but that only seeing the allegorical possibilities would close one's view on other aspects of the film, and very possibly the part of the movie going experience that is about seeing and feeling. Large parts of the movie add up to more than mere allegory and make use of the fact that everything we see on screen can be a metaphor and something concrete in the reality of the film at once, leaving the viewer to decide on the film's meaning instead of shoving it in her face.

Much of the Valhalla Rising plays in the spaces between what's real and what's metaphorical, and I think it will work best for an audience going into it with a very open mind, willing to confront the tension between the film's gritty violence, the awe-inspiring bleakness of its locations and its indifference towards the expectation of how narrative or acting are supposed to be done on screen.

I for my part found Valhalla utterly fascinating, and Refn's insistence on making a movie that's not too readily accessible without being hermetic admirable.


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