I was most impressed with Valhalla Rising last night, a rare excursion away from horror viewing for me, but one which definitely merits a mention. But be aware – this is not the action film I was expecting from its trailer. Instead it veers between styles, coming at some point between Bergman-style arthouse and dialogue-light ‘spaghetti westerns’, balancing moments of intensely-gruelling violence with incredible scenery and beauty.
The ‘plot’ is this, although plot comes secondary to mood: Norse warrior ‘One-Eye’ (played brilliantly by Madds Mikkelsen) is a slave, being held by the chieftain of a Northern Scottish clan and treated as sport by his men, fighting – and winning – for their entertainment. When One-Eye finds an arrow head in the river where he is permitted to wash, he is able to cut the ties around his wrists and exacts a bloody revenge on his captors before escaping. A young boy belonging to the clan follows him, and gradually One-Eye accepts the boy, taking on the role of his protector.
They then encounter a clan of Christian Vikings who, after thinking better of fighting him, insist on One-Eye joining them on crusade to Jerusalem. But their voyage seems to be cursed; a dense mist dogs their journey, they cannot navigate, and in true Ancient Mariner style they begin to hurl blame at one another. When in desperation one day One-Eye moves to drink the saltwater, the men discover the water is fresh. They have arrived at a new land, but it is not Jerusalem. Where are they?
The remaining men are now alone in an alien landscape, being attacked by a heathen adversary they cannot see. One-Eye – still silent, and still an unknown quantity – is increasingly visited by supernatural visions and seems to acquiesce to the fact that this is his final journey. Those around him cling to their adopted faith. One-Eye (Odin?) however, is a symbol of the pagan roots they have rejected, reacting viscerally and spiritually to the hostile environment in which they find themselves. The Christians refer to the new land as ‘Hell’; the boy (who begins to speak for his protector) asserts that One-Eye himself was ‘brought up from hell’.
As I suggested, the film does not move along traditional linear plot lines, relying instead on the powerful impressions it bestows with vast segments of silence, minimal dialogue (with the anti-hero of the piece being a mute) and the quite startling effects of long landscape shots. The overall effect is solemn and Sublime in true Edmund Burke-style, with the characters (excepting One-Eye) inferior to the nature around them and by the ‘heathens’ who stalk them.
This is definitely a film which, for me, would merit a second watch. There are lots of layers of symbolism here that I perhaps didn’t appreciate fully, or, maybe that’s all part of the effect of this slow-paced, highly artistic piece of filmmaking. Not what I was expecting, Valhalla Rising, with its five-pages-at-most script, striking visuals and subtle nods towards the spiritual was a very different type of film indeed.