Like a vengeful cornered beast, Nicolas Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising exhibits a desperate ferociousness during even its most lyrical moments. Set in 1000 AD amidst a relentless Christian crusade against Norse heathens, Valhalla Rising finds a silent warrior in One Eye (Mads Mikkelsen), a mute slave turned gladiator who methodically dispatches his competition with brutal precision. Foggy highlands shroud the entire narrative in a mystical haze, juxtaposing the silent beauty of rocky mountainsides, lush flora, and withering winds with the palpable rage of hand-to-hand combat. Instinct rules this roost, and Winding Refn avoids dialogue in favor of glances, movement, and violence. Language does not come in the form of words, but through pummeling fists and savage swipes of an axe.
Yet Valhalla Rising rests under the family tree of Terrence Malick’s The New World rather than a period-piece epic like Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, instilling a fascinating sense of place through layered sound design and long camera takes. As One-Eye escapes capture, befriends a young boy, and joins up with a group of Viking/Christian fundamentalists, the unforgiving environment matches the character’s actions. Time moves to the background, and ideology becomes filtered through a bloody and mystical lens of the extreme wide-angle.
Unlike his previous film Bronson, a film that kinetically moves back and forth through time matching its protagonist’s warped sense of reality, Winding Refn finds a quiet menace in Valhalla Rising. At one point in the film One-Eye and his group find themselves ashore in a new land (probably America), and the rhythms of the space begin to overwhelm the senses. The art of discovery comes with terrible consequences rooted in greed, deceit, and faith-based sacrifice. The film descends into a languishing void of water, blood, greenery, and mud. The sun is completely blanketed by uncertainty and death, and the characters appear on the precipice of hell on Earth.
Valhalla Rising is all visceral force, a broadsword of cinematic prowess directly tied to the power of dynamic mise-en-scene. It’s a film that speaks in tongues, but communicates on an elemental level. Like his lead character, Winding Refn favors an ambiguous ideological focus, an epic construction of good and evil seen through the hallucinatory guise of a violent yet noble prophet. Pushed to the brink, One-Eye finds his strength in watching others wilt under the pressure of contradiction. In his world, the art of war and of silence are kindred spirits, and only a select few hold the skill to successfully wield them both.