Nicolas Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising is ostensibly about a one-eyed, mute Scandinavian gladiator who, after slaying the owner that’s enslaved him like a battered pit bull, joins a bunch of Viking Christian zealots on their way to take over Jerusalem. But, in fact, this Bruckheimer-style storyline is merely an excuse to film a Joseph Conrad-worthy existential journey to hell. It’s an intriguing artistic choice from the director best known for the narrative-driven Pusher trilogy and the borderline avant-garde Bronson. Now with Valhalla Rising it seems Refn has pared his vision down to its atmospheric essence, creating another universe that is closer in spirit to Kubrick’s futuristic 2001: A Space Odyssey than it is to any ancient bibilical blockbuster.
Interestingly, the Kubrick comparison doesn’t end there. With a haunting soundscape that resembles that of The Shining and divided into parts with names like “Silent Warrior,” “Hell,” and “The Sacrifice” boldly announced through title cards, the movie is mostly wordless. When the first line of dialogue is spoken in English (“He never belonged to anyone for more than five years”), it’s near jarring. Through painstakingly composed images, rendered in different levels of saturation, that place an emphasis on primary colors (heavy reds for flash-forwards, a mountain scene awash in blue lighting, yellow used for a fog-drenched boat) primal nature is evoked.
None of which upstages the performance of Refn’s muse Mads Mikkelsen, who plays the grizzly fighting machine One Eye with all the cold menace befitting a character not averse to squishing skulls or ripping out an adversary’s insides while he’s still alive. (“He’s driven by hate,” a warrior explains of One Eye. Ya think? But then what does clunky dialogue matter in a movie in which the script is completely irrelevant?) Though the combat scenes are truly gruesome, Mikkelsen is sublime, blessed with the same rugged charisma entwined with inner stillness as that of the star he most closely resembles, Danish-American Viggo Mortensen. Looking like Mad Max, the leather clad Mikkelsen is easily able to pull off the gruesome to spiritual transition that occurs once the film reaches “The Holy Land” chapter and practically turns into Terence Malick’s The New World. From Pusher to Valhalla Rising, Mikkelsen just gets deeper and sexier with every role, possessing the same distilled intensity as his director. It’s a match made in heaven, and even in hell.