Sunday, August 6, 2017

A Viking Hell

Valhalla Rising is a movie that's really unlike any other. Directed by the man who helmed Drive, a personal favorite of mine, Nicholas Winding Renf directs a film that comes off at time more like a anxiety-ridden, old world music video, laden heavily with metaphors and glimpses into what hell of earth could possibly look like. It comes off a little like a Viking sword-fest, though it is unmistakably not. It's more of a trippy, blood-drenched journey from dismal to degradation - less in the Roman sense, and more in the Dante's Inferno sense. It certainly takes patience, and a willingness to watch something different, in every sense of the word.

The film stars Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen, who's in another one of my personal favorites, Charlie Countryman. He plays a mute slave in Scandinavian Scotland. In the 8th century, Vikings colonized parts of the UK, Ireland, and Scotland. The movie begins in Sutherland in Northern Scotland, descendants of Vikings trading coin to the utter brutality of their slaves. The film is dark, grimy, and gritty in every sense of the word, with lots of Scandinavian and Scottish actors staring pensively into the mountainous landscape that surrounds them.

Mikkelsen plays One-Eye, named by a Viking youth because he only has one eye, and because he simply can't tell anyone his name, as he's a mute. He's a thrall, or a slave, forced to fight in the highlands of Scandinavian Scotland by the Viking chieftain who's holding him hostage. He's apparently not such a great guy, making wagers on his muddy brawlers and muttering cryptic messages of One-Eye's more vengeful tendencies.

One fateful day when One-Eye is bathing in a mountain brook, he ducks under the water and comes, rather ironically, across an arrowhead. This particular finding plays a part a later in his personal travails, but at the moment of his initial discovery, it helps him find his freedom. He kills the chieftain and his soldiers, one in a pretty sadistic fashion. The chieftain tells us earlier that One-Eye is a man driven by hate, and it certainly appears this way as he takes out all his pent up frustrations on the Viking men. He then mounts the chieftain's severed head on a pike before grabbing the nearest ax and literally heading for the hills.

Alongside One-Eye is a blond boy who is never really named, presumably the son of one of the slain, or perhaps a slave himself. In any case, he fed and tended to One-Eye when he was a captive, and therefore, in the aftermath of the silent warrior's murder-fest, he allows the boy to live. The boy then follows at a safe distance to find their next adventure together. When they come across a band of newly-converted Christian Vikings about to set sail for Jerusalem (for the Crusades), the boy does the talking for his new comrade, and indirectly accepts the invitation to head for the holy war.

This seems to be when group descend into a hellish world of fog and pestilence, a few of the holy warriors blaming One-Eye and boy for delivering to them a curse. This is when One-Eye shows his loyalty to his pint-sized compadre, killing a guy on board the ship who conspired to kill the boy as he slept.

With the voyage along troubled waters, writer and director Refn seems to be inspired by Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge's long-verse poem, "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," about an ill-fated sailor who kills an innocent albatross and damns his entire crew with a slew of bad omens. Valhalla Rising will give us calm enough scenes, but then instantly shift to visions of One-Eye drenched in red, hinting toward his pent up hate that he unleashes whenever someone tries to harm him or the boy.

The film is not riddled with one fight scene after the other, though the few it does have are unpredictable and extremely violent. It's a cold, dismal outing, as our lost troupe ventures off course somehow and ends up on the shores of some strange, heavily-wooded new world, either the east coast of Canada or the  Northeast of America. They encounter arrow wounds with unseen sources, eluding to the fact that the Viking crew is in the midst of some hostile natives. The message we're supposed to be getting is that the men are essentially in Hell, and all try to come to terms with this in their own way. While some of the other men pray to God, One-Eye erects a pile of rocks on the shoreline, eluding to his own pagan worship practices.

This is a strange, artsy movie, with Refn probably inspired by Terrence Malick (The New World) and his own country's rich Norse history. I don't think you'll see many films like Valhalla Rising, but it makes you think. It's sort of like a really good open-ended question that you have to devote some time to. You know you're probably going to have a different answer than the next person, and I think that's how Refn intended it to be. Valhalla Rising is at least worth checking out if you're into Viking history and sordid allegories about the afterlife.

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