Nicolas Winding Refn is a film maker to watch. Of his films that I've seen, The Pusher Trilogy, Bronson (link to my review), and now Valhalla Rising (links to the search results for Google's shopping option), he has proven to have the rare ability to craft films that have the qualities of being both meditative and unpretentiously entertaining. His films have been, in many ways, the other side of the Christopher Nolan coin. Where Christopher Nolan's films have been primarily entertainment, with the kind of serious, meditative undertone, Refn's films have been primarily meditative and serious, without snobbishly turning up his nose at the kind of entertainment "serious" film critics and aficionado's tend to lambaste.
With Valhalla Rising (links to Netflix Watch Instantly), he's taken that ability to the next level. Where Bronson and The Pusher Trilogy presented those qualities in stark relief, contrasting each other in different moments of each film, Valhalla Rising mixes them together much more organically, and in eliminating the contrast creates an unusually powerful narrative for a film whose content deals so directly with brutal violence, and the nature of people who perpetrate it. The result is a film which takes the best of Terrence Malick's lyricism and the most brutally compelling scenes in Ridley Scott's Gladiator. In it's own strange way, it's in the same spiritual family as Apocalypse Now.
The film begins with a man in chains, surrounded by dour looking Norse warriors. It quickly becomes obvious that these Norse are either using prisoners for entertainment by watching them kill each other or it's their form of a system of justice. This particular man is also extremely adept at killing other slaves and prisoners.
This cold blooded killer quickly escapes and kills his captors, and with a boy named Ayre who had been a slave, finds a group of Vikings, who are headed for Jerusalem to reclaim the Holy Land. They don't end up in the Holy Land though, they end up more or less lost, landing in some unkown place. All is not what it seems, and the rest of the film follows our slave warrior, at this point dubbed "One Eye," through a compelling and engaging journey. The film is broken into three acts, differentiated specifically by title cards, whose titles are interesting if only for the kind of allegory they suggest.
Refn has used Mads Mikkelson in two of the Pusher films, and again here as the protagonist One Eye. American audiences would probably most quickly recognize him as Le Chiffre, the villain from Casino Royale and unfortunately that horrendous, skull crushingly bad remake of Clash of the Titans (link to my review of that steaming turd). It's unfortunate that he's only been given the kind of extremely stereotypical roles common to American blockbusters, because he's a talented actor, with real range and depth, and he's got one of the most interesting faces in contemporary film. Did I mention that One Eye, his character is mute? Through the entire film, the character never says one word. Even with just one eye, his eyes stil say thousands of words.
The film is beautifully shot, and this adds to the overall lyricism, in combination with the structure of the narrative. There isn't an indoor shot in the entire film, and the wide expanses that surround the actors also add to the feeling of seclusion and in doing so, heighten the feeling that the characters are under threat. The vistas captured by the lense are beautiful and breathtaking. Refn has quite an eye for talent. Having given Tom Hardy the lead role in Bronson, he introduced the world to the kind of searing talent we can expect to be around for a very long time. Cinematographer Morten Soborg has worked on a number of Danish films, including two of Refn's Pusher films, and we should expect to start seeing him getting work here in the States very soon.
This is a bloody good film. I should have known better than to expect a more straight forward actioner from Refn, and I was pleasantly surprised by the fact that it reaches for something much deeper than that, and on the whole, succeeds.