Underrated: Valhalla Rising

Somebody once described the style of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising to me as “What if David Lynch made a Viking movie?” However, I’m not sure if this description is totally fair to either party. For one thing, this implies that the movie is surreal. It isn’t. It also implies that the film contains dark humor, it doesn’t. It’s actually pretty amazing how dissimilar this movie is from any David Lynch film ever made. Amazing only because I can see why people would make a comparison between the stylistic choices of Refn and those of Lynch.

Valhalla Rising is dark, moody, atmospheric, uninterested in linear plotting, and totally committed to its central theme. This theme, of course, is terror. The story is presented as a sort of bad acid trip (the director’s intention) that only gets worse. Its protagonist is One-Eye, played by Bond villain extraordinaire Mads Mikkelsen, a blood-thirsty warrior who is seen at the opening of the film as an enslaved gladiatorial piece of property. He fights while chained to a stake for the gambling profit of the elder warriors in a clan of Vikings.

Of course, One-Eye escapes the clan and seeks retribution. But instead of being able to exact action movie revenge, One-Eye is instead captured by a group of nomadic Christians traveling along the fresh water lakes of what is now Delaware. They are frightened by One-Eye, but they can’t resist keeping him around as a sort of insurance policy. He might be extremely violent, but he also only kills those who cross him.

The audience is then subjected to several strange and disturbing scenes of violence. So disturbing, in fact, that in one scene I actually said “oh my god” uncontrollably. I was by myself when I watched the movie.

People probably relate this film’s style with that of David Lynch because they’ve never seen a Werner Herzog movie. Valhalla Rising feels a whole lot like Herzog’s Aguirre: The Wrath of God, and Mikkelson’s performance could have easily been captured by the manic Klaus Kinski. But I think what we’re really seeing is another new voice in cinema. Nicolas Winding Refn is responsible for the Pusher trilogy, Bronson, and this year’s Cannes Film Festival Best Director prize winning Drive (click for trailer), my most anticipated film of 2011.

Refn is part of a new generation of filmmakers who grew up watching films by Lynch and Herzog and Jodolowsky and has crafted his own synthesis of these visions. He’s part of the New Danish Cinema movement fronted by Lars Von Trier, and he’s of a similar style and influence.

The film is beautifully shot and acted well by all of those in involved. Its pacing may be a bit slow for those expecting more action, but I said violence, not action. It is definitely worth a watch if you enjoy films like those collaborations between Herzog and Kinski, or if you enjoy films like El Topo or even, to a lesser extent, Lost Highway and Wild at Heart.

Valhalla Rising is currently available on Netflix’s watch instantly. Check it out for yourself.

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  • I'm not sure if this movie is my cup of tea. I don't handle violence well sometimes. But you did liken it to Wild at Heart, so maybe I'll muster up the courage and give it a try.

    I'm really excited about Drive, though!

  • "Aguirre" is a mad film. It was made by mad people. It was off the hook.