Valhalla Rising (2009)
February 20, 2012
Synopsis: Unfolding in six acts, Valhalla Rising tells of a 11th century, one-eyed brawler (Mads Mikkelsen) who falls in with a group of Christians journeying to the Holy Land. After getting lost at sea, the surly group arrives in a strange new world and descends into madness.
Valhalla Rising is an incredibly unique film and is certainly not for everyone. Those looking for a typical action flick in the style of Pathfinder will be disappointed in the slow pacing, essentially mute characters, and atypical storyline. But if you’re a cinephile or just looking for a change of pace, there’s a lot to appreciate here. Valhalla Rising has beautiful cinematography, excellent use of sparse dialog, and develops the plot through dramatic imagery rather than verbal exposition. The hero, One Eye, never says a word the entire film. Most of the characters prefer to sit silently and mope rather than talk (which is probably why they’re so hungry all the time. Go hunt something!) Kidding aside, the lack of dialog, muted tones, and driving metal soundtrack allow you to linger on the character’s faces and draw your own conclusions. The dramatic result is harsh, chilling, but utterly human. I thought the snail-paced plot development would bother me, but it was quite captivating.
The story unfolds in six acts (slight spoilers follow). The first, “Wraith”, introduces a violent brawler named One-Eye (Mikkelsen). He is chained constantly and kept in a cage until needed to fight for his master’s entertainment. When One-Eye escapes, (“A Silent Warrior”) he shows mercy to a young boy, who later follows him. “Men of God” introduces a group of Vikings who are on a Crusade to the Holy Land, and convince One-Eye to join them. Their boat spends many days lost in fog, and they finally arrive in a strange forested land. The following two acts, “The Holy Land” and “Hell” follow the group as they realize this isn’t the Crusade they were promised and descend into madness and chaos. The final act, “Sacrifice” was a surprise to me so I won’t spoil it here.
Themes: Violence, the Existence of God and Purpose
What do you do when you’ve reached the end of the line? When life no longer makes sense? And I’m not talking “my iphone broke and I got a flat tire” kind of crisis. I’m talking when you go to the ends of the Earth on a quest for God (the Crusades) and realize you were really just in it for yourself. Will you cling desperately to your ideology, question your perceptions of reality, erupt into a murderous rage? The would-be Crusaders reach this dead end and one by one realize their quest was never truly driven by a desire to please God. The film poses this existential crisis well, and questions if there is a God or a purpose behind life at all. This message is hauntingly convicting. How often do I embark on a self-serving path and trick myself (and others) into thinking its Holy?
While Valhalla Rising has far more questions than answers, its final human act suggests the existence of a higher morality; one that is grasped by any culture or religion.
Valhalla Rising is beautifully shot, brutally graphic, eerily paced, and bizarre. Mads Mikkelsen is a terrific actor and is emerging as an archetypal ’Clint Eastwood’ of the epic genre. I didn’t mind the incredibly slow pacing and thin storyline because I was washing the dishes at the time. If you’re looking for something different, give it a try. But I suggest adding some menial task like folding laundry.