Review: Valhalla Rising, 2009, dir. Nicolas Winding Refn

It’s amazing what a second viewing of a film can do to alter one’s perception and reaction to it. A while back, in my review of Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn’s excellent Bronson, I mentioned my admiration for Valhalla Rising— his 2009 follow-up– in the body of the review itself as well as in discussions following in the comments; at the time I considered it lyrical, haunting, and highly mood-driven, qualities that when added together yielded a brooding and resonant work from Refn. Yesterday, after revisiting the film, my opinion experienced something of a shift. All of those characteristics remain for me, of course, but in watching Valhalla Rising for a second time I found myself reeling from its disjointed, jumping narrative, and confused over its slightly muddled meanings as well. 

Valhalla Rising follows the mute One-Eye (Mads Mikkelsen) from his imprisonment in a Norse warrior camp, tucked away in misted highlands, to his falling in with a group of Christians bent on reaching Jerusalem and joining the Crusades. The holy men promise One-Eye a soul cleansed of sin if he commits to their cause, but One-Eye isn’t the sort of person to adopt causes or follow orders; instead, he follows his prophetic dreams, which drive much of his activity throughout the entirety of the film.

Half of the movie deals with One-Eye’s internment and his run-in with the crusaders; the other half details the band’s arrival in a mysterious new land which does not at all resemble Jerusalem, and which may not be of this earth. That question of authenticity doesn’t really weigh on Valhalla Rising‘s events in any way that’s particularly meaningful or palatable, so I’m inclined to leave the mystery of the cast’s location alone– the big answer is “who cares?”– and treat it as something of a flavorful detail and a note on the ratcheting levels of paranoia among the crusaders as they argue among themselves regarding their point of arrival. Maybe taken from that respect the unknown nature of their destination is important, because by and large Valhalla Rising feels like an hour and a half long diatribe criticizing, attacking, and even mocking the very notion of religious belief.

I walked away from the film noting its anti-religious bent the first time I saw it, as I imagine many might. So much about Valhalla Rising is clearly concerned with taking the mickey out of the Christian faith (to put it mildly), particularly in how it contrasts the stated goal behind prayer and worship with the harsh realities endured by the crusaders in their travels with One-Eye. If these men pray to Christ and follow the teachings of the church to live free from pain, why do they bear arms and willingly expose themselves to danger? It’s a question that Refn seems to be asking behind the camera; whatever the desired effect of the soldiers’ belief may be, they certainly are never at any point free from pain, and make no mistake, Valhalla Rising is a bloody and cruel picture. The worst of the film’s harsh violence occurs in the first two chapters, but as One-Eye travels to the new world, men around him nonetheless die agonizingly and senselessly– sometimes by his own hand.

I do not, per se, have any issue with Refn using Valhalla Rising to perform a critique upon faith– specifically the Christian faith– but rather with the fact that in undertaking that endeavor, the movie abandons any sense of cogency and becomes as lost as its characters. The last half hour of the film feels cacophonous, in particular during an extended sequence depicting each living member of the company having one form of a breakdown or another– one man stabs furiously at the dirt as another prays waist-deep in water. There’s no structure here, just cinematic noise; Refn’s story by this point has degraded into an inchoate howl of disgust, proclaiming that religion leads its adherents to wallow in the mud and brings them to their most primal instincts. As his picture becomes more disdainful, every other point of interest– notably One-Eye’s incrementally intensifying dreams, and his protective relationship with the young boy who formerly served him food and water in prison– gets drowned out.

It’s difficult to watch Valhalla Rising‘s denouement and accept that this is the work of the man behind Drive. Where that film feels lean and focused, Valhalla Rising by contrast is bloated– despite its short running time– and incredibly hodgepodge. One-Eye’s arc, for example, is a mess with a resolution that would work if it occurred in a different movie entirely. The movie itself drifts, moving listlessly from scene to scene and with very little happening in any of them; it’s a quiet movie that’s not in a hurry to get anywhere, and that cinematic personality lends itself to audience fatigue. Shockingly little action or plot unfolds here, particularly when compared against Refn’s other films– namely the manic, madcap Bronson and the cool, precise Drive.

Where those films have momentum and forward propulsion, though,Valhalla Rising suffers from fits of lethargy. Occasionally, it finds its feet and moves with a graceful cadence, and in these times the movie almost achieves levels of brilliance through its atmospheric, chilling elements of setting and music. But too often Refn indulges in images of the abstract, and the back-and-forth between the film’s fits of excellence and its sluggish lulls produces a jarring effect across the entire production. To see the best of Refn, look elsewhere. For those really interested in his work, Valhalla Rising deserves one viewing– and no more.

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8 thoughts on “Review: Valhalla Rising, 2009, dir. Nicolas Winding Refn

    • Hey, I’m with you on Only God Forgives, Blain– and if you didn’t hear, that one just got distribution through Radius-TWC, a new branch of the Weinstein Company. I don’t think I’ve come to despise Valhalla Rising or anything, but it’s not the best example of what Refn can do at the height of his powers.

  1. I found Valhalla Rising very interesting. It was an artistic visual feast for the senses, and yet it seemed to contain very little dialogue. The action scenes are what really dragged me in though.

    • I did like the minimal dialogue, and that most of the story is told through action (not just violence, but through physical motion). But there’s so little actual story that that minimalism gets unbearable at points.

  2. I was strangely hypnotized by this movie the first time but I already realized then it was overly convoluted and overindulgent. It’s interesting that you went back to see this because I have absolutely no interest in seeing it again despite the surreal first-time experience. Certainly, it’s a shock that the man who made this movie also made Drive (which I just rewatched twice this weekend)

    • I wish I’d had no interest in re-watching this, though I am happier to have a better-clarified opinion on it now. It’s just not as good as Refn can give. It’s trippy and ethereal and weird, but you’re right about its overindulgence and it’s just really, really, really slow and ill-paced.

  3. I had no idea what the Hell Refn was trying to say with this flick… I think my thinking boiled down to “Ooh, trippy” lol.

    I’d have to watch it again to try to derive some deeper understanding, but I’m not that interested. I’m content to see he made a visually intriguing movie, and a fun enough movie to watch (once). Now that ive checked it off I don’t see myself going back.

    • Beyond the anti-religious angle, which is really what I got from the movie, I think there’s supposed to be a through line about One-Eye growing fond of the boy who feeds him and gives him water while he’s imprisoned and coming to the point where he’s willing to die to protect the youth. But that little arc resides firmly on the sidelines of the movie. If Refn had explored it more in-depth and more directly I think it would have done wonders for Valhalla Rising‘s quality, and it would have tied the movie to Drive on a thematic level.

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