Hunter on Valhalla Rising

6Jan

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I'm a firm believer that the Viking movie is a sleeping giant of a sub-genre, but for now we get precious few of them. That said, if Nicolas Winding Refn's Valhalla Rising was the last Viking film we ever got, I would be perfectly satisfied. Valhalla Rising is a slow-burning tale of One-Eye (Mads Mikkelsen), a mute embodiment of violence and brutality whose only purpose is to fight prisoners to the death for his pagan masters. Plagued with apocalyptic visions of the future, One-Eye escapes his captors and comes across Christian Vikings on a crusade to the Holy Land. He joins them, but their ship, enshrouded by a thick fog, lands somewhere else, somewhere Hellish and alien.  Valhalla Rising isn't a movie about Vikings, so much as it is a poem about Hell, which is where the movie descends a la Apocalypse Now.  Hell isn't a pit of fire and brimstone where Satan roasts on a spit you over and over again for dinner, so much as it is a place completely alienated from God, which is where this movie takes place, a Godless void.   The Vikings One-Eye encounters claim to be Christians, but they are consumed by greed and hubris, God and Jesus coming second to their quest for riches.  One of them talks of building the New Jerusalem, filled with gold, it's not unlike the building of the Tower of Babel.  Their conquest can do nothing but anger the God they supposedly glorify.

What I value most in certain types of film is atmosphere, a thick sense of place, and Valhalla Rising is easily the most atmospheric film of 2010, thanks in no small part to the moody soundtrack by Peter Kyed and (no joke) Peter Peter, the best marriage of audio and video all year, even trumping Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross' score for The Social Network. The sloping hills, foreboding clouds, and One-Eye's violent gaze do the rest. The result is a feeling of dread so heavy you can cut it.   And there's plenty of time to feel it, while it's running time is just over ninety minutes, VALHALLA RISING is a slow burn that takes its time and breathes, letting you soak in the vibe, the pace gives it the feeling that the movie is far longer than it actually is, but in this case that's a good thing.

This film has drawn comparisons to the work of Werner Herzog and Terence Malick, and while the descent into madness and the way the movie dwells in nature indeed recall their films, Refn's film works on its own demonic level.  While poetic, it's not kind in spirit like Malick's work, nor is it chaotic like Herzog. The film has more in common with Andrei Tarkovsky's work, as the film's slow descent recalls films like Stalker, indeed Refn's approach here "sculpts in time" the way Tarkovsky did.  But Refn isn't tipping the hat or paying homage to any of these artists, Valhalla Rising makes no effort to be like anything that has come before. It is an original creation, and one of the best films of 2010.

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