Director – Nicolas Winding Refn, Screenplay – Roy Jacobsen & Nicolas Winding Refn, Producers – Johnny Andersen, Henrik Danstrup & Bo Ehrhardt, Photography – Morten Søborg, Music – Peter Kyed & Peterpeter, Visual Effects – Dragon DI, Physical Effects/Prosthetics – Artem Ltd, Makeup Design – Niamh Morrison, Production Design – Laurel Wear. Production Company – Nimbus Films/La Belle Allee Productions/One Eye Production/Blind Eye Productions/Scanbox Films/Wild Bunch/Wild Side Films/Scanbox Entertainment/The Wales Creative IP Fund/DR/BBC Films/Vertigo Film Distribution
Mads Mikkelsen (One Eye), Maarten Stevenson (Are), Alexander Morton (Barde), Gary Lewis (Kare), Stewart Porter (Kenneth), Mathew Zajac (Malkolm), Gordon Brown (Hagen), Gary McCormack (Hauk), Jamie Sives (Gorm)
A mute, one-eyed stranger has been captured by a tribe of Vikings. They brutalise and torture him but he is incredibly tough fighter and wins out, eventually making an escape. Accompanied by a boy, the one-eyed man travels until he comes upon a tribe of Vikings who have converted to Christianity. They reluctantly accept him into their midst as they set sail for the Holy Land. Their ship is caught in a fog where they are beset by hunger and desperation. Eventually they come to the New World. Not knowing where they are, they set out to explore the lush lands unaware of the dangers awaiting them. All the time, the one-eyed man is guided by his inner visions. However, the waiting Indians and tensions within the group start eliminating the party’s numbers.
Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn first gained attention with Pusher (1996), the story of a problem-ridden petty drug dealer, which became a reasonable festival and arthouse hit and even underwent an English-language remake. Refn followed this up with two sequels Pusher 2 (2004) and Pusher 3 (2005). He went onto other works such as Bleeder (1999), a grim portrait of a man’s psychological fracturing, and his first English-language film Fear X (2003), a psychological thriller with John Turturro trying to find the reason for his wife’s killing. Refn had another arthouse hit with the brutally tough prison drama Bronson (2008), the highly acclaimed, Cannes Award-winning action film Drive (2011), the critically divided Only God Forgives (2013) and ventured into the horror genre with The Neon Demon (2016). He was also announced as one of the revolving door of directors attached to the remake of Logan’s Run (1976) and an announced remake of Maniac Cop (1988).
Valhalla Rising is a Viking film, although one cautions about throwing it in the same category as other Viking works such as The Vikings (1958), The Norseman (1978) and The Viking Sagas (1996). Perhaps the works that come the closest to Valhalla Rising‘s arena are the two most recent Viking films The 13th Warrior (1999) and particularly Pathfinder (2007), which also dealt with Vikings in the Americas. Although the work that defined the subject – and has a number of similarities in terms of visual style – was Robert Eggers’ subsequent The Northman (2022).
Valhalla Rising is certainly not an historical epic (at least in any traditional sense), which was exactly the problem that the publicity department had in trying to sell the film to English-language markets. The problem is that what we have feels more like an art film akin perhaps to Terence Malick’s The New World (2005) than we necessarily have anything that sits easily as an historical action adventure like Braveheart (1995). As a result of not knowing how to promote it, Valhalla Rising made an almost unnoticed appearance on US shores and vanished without a trace.
Nicolas Winding Refn has stripped the film of almost all dialogue. The lead character played by Mads Mikkelsen says nothing, while the rest of the characters have a purported total of 150 lines throughout. I am not even fully sure that I am reviewing Valhalla Rising as a fantasy film. It is mostly a mundane film, although Mads Mikkelsen does appear to have some visions and be guided by some sense of destiny throughout – a mystic sense of destiny and purpose seems to underlie many of Nicolas Winding Refn’s films, in particular Fear X – but so little is explained about anything that it is hard to tell. Certainly, other reviewers regarded Valhalla Rising as more of a work of fantasy than I am prepared to give it – it is a slim borderline case at best so I will include it here and let people make up their own mind.
Mostly, Valhalla Rising seems like a tone poem written in the colours of the Earth. It is all about the austere landscapes of Scandinavia (in actuality Scotland) contrasted with the lush verdant and untouched wilderness of the New World, punctuated with the occasional striking contrasts of a series of scarlet-shot scenes when Mads Mikkelsen has his visions. There is a frequently brutal violence – in the opening few scenes alone we see a man having his head bashed in by Mads Mikkelsen until the skull splits open and not long after another having his guts sliced open by Mads with an arrowhead and intestines falling out, while Mads frequently despatches members of the party throughout the film with great brutality.
On the minus side, Valhalla Rising is also slow moving. The lack of dialogue makes it seem as though there is no particular plot – it seems all characters wandering in a wilderness without ever arriving at a particular point, other perhaps than their deaths. The atmosphere, which is undeniably haunting, even overwhelming, often seems all that there is to the film. In this respect, the film that Valhalla Rising most reminds of is Vincent Ward’s Vigil (1985), a similar visual poem that embraced the mysteriousness of the landscape and the characters’ relationship with it. You come away from Valhalla Rising with a deeply haunted sense of the austerity of the land, sea and weather surrounding the characters. It almost seems a film determined to strip everything on the periphery away and emotionally place us inside the awe and fierceness of the relationship that the Vikings of the Middle Ages must have felt in the environment they lived.