Valhalla Rising

cast: Mads Mikkelson, Maarten Stevenson, Alexander Morton, Stewart Porter, and Gary Lewis

director: Nicolas Winding Refn

90 minutes (18) 2009
widescreen ratio 1.78:1
Momentum DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 7/10
review by Jonathan McCalmont

Valhalla Rising

The Scandinavians of the Viking age believed that the world was about to come to an end. They believed that the day would come when the tree of the world would shudder and groan as the Sun was blotted out and the Earth slowly sank into the sea… A day when the immortal gods would fight a great battle and die at the hands of vast wolves and gigantic serpents… A day that would not offer redemption or retribution, judgement or justice… but annihilation…

The Vikings themselves were a mostly pre-literate people whose collected wisdom was handed down through a mostly verbal bardic tradition similar in some ways to that of the Homeric Greeks. This means that what we know of the Viking worldview comes either from the pens of later Christian commentators or from the trowels of eager archaeologists. However, despite the gaps in our knowledge and the caveats applied to what we do know about them, it seems reasonable to assume that the brutality of the Viking existence and the apocalyptic pessimism of their myths might well have combined to produce a gloomy and nihilistic worldview.

The ease with which this projection is made is largely a result of the fact that the rediscovery and popularisation of Viking mythology in the 19th century was fuelled by an explosion in German and Nordic nationalism: a nationalism born of a sense of cultural revivification that also heralded the rise to prominence of thinkers such as Kierkegaard, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, whose pessimism would form the basis for the philosophical school of existentialism. This family resemblance makes it surprisingly easy to romanticise the Vikings as a culture made up of warrior-existentialists whose clear-eyed acceptance of the ultimate meaninglessness and futility of existence allowed them to hold out against the Christianisation of Europe before eventually disappearing beneath the waves of cultural imperialism.

Nicolas Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising is an existentialist Viking film that draws heavily upon this sense of family resemblance: its plot and characters emphasise the brutality and nihilism of the Viking age while its visuals utilise techniques developed over the last half century by a tradition of European art house cinema with a particular fondness for existential themes and images. However, despite being exquisitely shot and an undeniably accomplished piece of work, Valhalla Rising left me feeling very much like one of Winding Refn’s Vikings – pondering the end of an age and the desperate need for some kind of intellectual growth.

It is said that the sound of history is hobnail boots ascending and silk slippers descending the stairwell of time. What is meant by this is that the savagery peoples display when grabbing power is usually echoed in the softness and decadence they display when they are replaced by another hungrier and more violent people. This is the world that Valhalla Rising inhabits.

The film opens upon a world shrouded in mist. A tired world… A world coming to an end… One-Eye (Mads Mikkelson) is a peerlessly brutal fighter, kept in a cage by local chieftains who only release him in order that he might fight other slaves for the entertainment and financial gain of their owners. These owners do not fight. They are businessmen and politicians. At one point, a younger chieftain approaches One-Eye’s owner and points out that his time has past and he must hand on the fighter to a new owner. One-Eye represents the savagery of the north-men, the savagery of humanity as a whole. But here he is caged, chained, and broken…

The world of the Vikings is coming to an end and they prepare to don their silk slippers. The wearers of the hobnail boots, in this case, are the Christians. Once One-Eye is transferred to a new owner his escape is inevitable. Even in a world as tired as that of this film, human savagery still lives and breathes and will eventually break free. Equally predictable is the fact that One-Eye (along with a young boy – played by Maarten Stevenson – who serves as One-Eye’s mouthpiece) will wind up with the Christians. The violence that lurks in the hearts of all men still needs a host, a direction, a purpose.

Valhalla Rising presents Christianity as a potentially revitalising force rather than a civilising one. When we first meet the Christians they are standing amidst naked slave girls, burning bodies and heads on pikes. They are every inch the Vikings of myth and lore but unlike the old chieftains, they still believe in the prospects of a better world: a world of wealth and plenty. A world that offers more than the desolate existence enjoyed by One-Eye’s owners… A world described using the vocabulary of meekness, morality and redemption but built with a mortar mixed from blood and bones. A world worth fighting and killing for…

The group then set off for the Holy Land in the hope of re-conquering it from the unbelievers but their ship manages to get lost in the mist. As the days float past and the water reserves dry up, members of the group start drinking saltwater. Madness follows and with madness comes violence as One-Eye wakes from his torpor and kills the Viking foolish enough to threaten him. Eventually the mist clears and the group find themselves not at sea but on a huge river.

The amazing sunshine, beautiful rolling hillsides and lush unspoiled greenery could not be more different from the miserable mist-shrouded rocks of the north and so the group assume that they have arrived in the Holy land. But where exactly are the people? What the Vikings soon discover is what Kurtz discovered in Joseph Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness (1899), namely that while we may rage at the decadence of society, picking away at that thin veneer of civilisation reveals a world of savagery, death and horror. A new world is a world in which man’s destructive temperament is completely unconstrained. A world where there is nothing holding us back, telling us what not to do and where not to go. Such a world is a terrifying place. A place as close to Hell as it is possible to imagine.

Valhalla Rising has a lot to recommend it and it is undeniably a substantial piece of filmmaking. How do we know that it is a substantial piece of filmmaking? Because it looks like a load of other films that are all above reproach… And therein lies the problem…

Valhalla Rising is an art house film that operates well within that cinematic tradition’s comfort zone. Much like Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), and Herzog’s Aguirre, The Wrath Of God (1972), Valhalla Rising uses Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness as a narrative and thematic template onto which it grafts a new setting. However, Apocalypse Now and Aguirre are not only legendary films whose images have deeply impacted our shared culture, they are also films that were made during the 1970s, and it is not clear that Winding Refn is actually adding anything to either of those films by crudely replacing the US soldiers and conquistadors with Vikings.

The same sense of crushing over-familiarity overshadows the film’s technical accomplishments. Morten Soborg’s cinematography is above reproach but it is served to us using the same combination of extended dialogue-free sequences and elegiac images of nature that grace Malick’s The New World (2005), a reference that seems just a little bit too on-the-nose considering that both films involve naive Europeans encountering native American others.

Valhalla Rising is a well-made and intelligently conceived film but it is not telling or showing us anything that we have not seen before. This is art house cinema reduced to the status of a genre with the same old themes and subjects explored using the same old techniques and tricks. It is tired. It is fatigued and undemanding…

This is art with the creative impulse kept in chains and passed back and forth between worn-out chieftains. This is the kind of film that makes you strain to remember the last time you were genuinely shocked or surprised at the cinema. This is art that leaves you yearning for a gust of fresh air that will blow away the cobwebs. This is the revolutionary corrupted into the familiar. The transgressive repackaged as the formulaic. This is what creative stagnation looks like and I find that almost unbearably depressing. As someone who is not only a huge fan of Conrad but also of Malick, existentialism and Vikings, Valhalla Rising should have been my ideal film but instead it left me feeling that I had seen it all before just one too many times.

My review copy contained no extras though the final retail version might well. Speaking of which, I think Momentum deserve some kind of prize for the most hilariously misleading cover artwork for a DVD release I have ever seen. As I make clear in the introduction of this review, Valhalla Rising is an art house film that dwells on existentialist themes. It is not, as Momentum seem intent on suggesting, a version of 300 with Vikings. If you want rip-snorting action go somewhere else.