Thursday, September 15, 2011

Overlooked Gems #6: Valhalla Rising

Grade: 78 (B+)

Danish filmmaker Nicholas Winding Refn has quickly cemented a reputation as a gifted genre-stylist. After a breakthrough with his 1996 Danish gangster film Pusher, Refn failed big with his first American film, the John Turturro starring Fear X. Refn’s production company went bankrupt and he was forced to make two sequels to Pusher, both of which were well-received. After a turbulent first decade in the business, Refn has established himself as a major voice in cinema, first with 2009’s Bronson, a fascinating film driven by a powerhouse performance by Tom Hardy but occasionally hampered by its heavy debt to A Clockwork Orange and an episodic script that often seemed like a series of set-pieces strung together. With this year’s Drive, Refn won the Best Director Award at the Cannes Film Festival. But the film in between, 2010’s Valhalla Rising, is today’s subject. A brutally violent Viking film starring Danish actor Mads Mikkelson as a mute, one-eyed warrior wasn’t going to make millions at the box-office, but with the impending success of Drive (to be released this weekend), Valhalla Rising deserves a chance to be re-discovered on DVD.

“One-Eye” (Mikkelson) is actually a nameless warrior held captive by a group of Vikings as a source of entertainment; he and other prisoners fight each other to the death in early scenes that establish that this is not a film for the squeamish. In the film’s mostly wordless opening sequences, One-Eye bites, kicks, punches and strangles various men before topping it all off by wrapping a chain around the neck of one man and snapping it. Seen as too dangerous, One-Eye is led away from the camp. He escapes, killing everyone nearby (one man he beheads and sticks his head on a pike, another he disembowels and leaves to die) save for a slave-boy who serves as an interpreter for the stone-faced warrior. The two run in with a group of Christian Vikings, who promise of gold, God, and glory if the two accompany them on a journey to join the Crusades in Jerusalem.

Valhalla Rising is broken up into six sections titled, in order: “Wrath”, “Silent Warrior”, “Men of God”, “The Holy Land”, “Hell”, and “The Sacrifice.” The film has the unfortunate virtue of having a third section so strong that none of the following sequences can quite compare. In “Men of God”, One-Eye, the boy, and the Vikings sail across the sea in hopeless abandon, blinded by fog and mist, completely lost. Tensions grow as some of the men’s distrust of One-Eye and the boy leads to their attempt to kill them in their sleep (as one might expect, it does not go over very well). Hungry and without water, the men begin to wonder whether they are cursed as they drift about. The sequence becomes more dream-like and strange until its end, when One-Eye awakes, drinks from the sea and finds that they are in fresh water. The sequence feels like Apocalypse Now or Aguirre, the Wrath of God boiled down to bare essentials: grim, nearly wordless, heavier on atmosphere as the situation grows more dire. An entire film built around this sequence may have been a strange masterpiece. As it is, the film’s subsequent sections can’t top or equal it, but they’re not bad by any stretch of the imagination.

The film’s greatest advantage is represented in Mikkelson’s character: the imposing One-Eye is less a man than a force of nature, a representation of violence incarnate. His presence spells the doom of nearly everyone he comes in contact with. The approach to the filmmaking and acting sets the film apart from mediocrities like Gladiator and Braveheart or total trash like 300. The violence is brutal and ugly rather than exhilarating, and the film isn’t marred by faux-Shakespearean dialogue a la Gladiator or self-important hooey like Braveheart. The actions of the characters tell more than any monologue ever could. The film’s influences are clear: John Milius, with its meditations on the violent nature of man, and Walter Hill, with the emphasis on action to drive the story. But Refn’s film is very much his own, taking genre pieces and cutting them to the bone. It reminded me of another brutal meditation on violence, Cormac McCarthy’s masterful novel Blood Meridian. Man is a nasty piece of work, and without pity.

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