A trippy mix of religion, faith, paranoia and foreign lands. The patrons of new gods fight the embodiments of old, and the New World takes an opportunity to throw a few kicks in too.
I was prompted to see this after getting wildly excited over seeing the trailer for Nicolas Winding Refn's upcoming film Only God Forgives, his latest film since Drive, which I absolutely loved. I was told to check out both this and the Pusher Trilogy, something I'm sure I'll get around to eventually.
Anyway, Valhalla Rising. It's a much more esoteric movie than Drive and that's saying something. In the same way that if you went to see Drive expecting The Fast and the Furious with more Ryan Gosling, if you come to Valhalla Rising expecting a swashbuckling Viking hack-and-slash adventure you'll be sorely disappointed.
The plot, if you can call it that really, follows a mute warrior-slave known only as One Eye. He was at the mercy of a Celtic or possibly Nordic hill tribe who used him as a fighter in gambling and entertainment. Upon gaining his freedom he encounters a band of Christians setting off for Jerusalem to fight in one of the early crusades. Joining them, he sets off on journey to the Holy Lands that eventually leads them through Hell.
Valhalla Rising hints at many things and reveals few. Drawing on a wealth of cultures, particularly Celtic and Nordic mythology, certain things are alluded to. It's hard to ignore the similarities between this half sighted beastly warrior and the one-eyed battle god-king Odin from Viking mythology. Similarly it's hard to separate the visual stylings of the people the band encounters in wherever it is they end up from certain other "primitive" cultures; especially so if you believe the theories that the Vikings explored a lot more of the world than we thought.
The film leaves a lot open to interpretation, and it's going to come down to personal preference whether that's a good thing or not. Personally, I loved it. Lots of ambiguous storytelling techniques combined with some beautiful scenery (thank you, Scottish Highlands) create a powerful ethereal feeling, giving the entire film a dream like or illusion-like haze.
It's not a blockbuster. It's dreamy, unclear, hazy and features a lot of brutal violence. For once, as well, you get some sword-and-shield period fighting that doesn't involve a 10 minute sword fight just to resolve a dispute. The one thing that very much anchors Valhalla Rising in the real world is its portrayal of violence. Fights are over quickly. The injuries sustained are fatal and you know this for sure. It's not clean and it's not slick but it's impactful, you feel every hit, very much a metaphor for the film itself.