'Valhalla Rising': Deliberate Norse Skull-Rattler

Directed by: Nicholas Winding Refn, Runtime: 93 minutes
Grade: B+

Nearly every shred of dialogue within Valhalla Rising can be heard in the confines of its two-minute trailer, which misrepresents Nicolas Winding Refn's sparse ninety-minute roar of earthy grime, bloodshed, and primal meditation. It appears to be a dialogue-driven historical piece rooted in obtaining freedom, like Braveheart set during the Viking era with some content about the Crusades in the offset. What manifests on-screen, however, is a vastly different beast; oh, there's the obtaining of liberty at play, but the central character's nature veers far from being a banner of inspiration. Backed by heavy post-modern rock tunes and drenched in filthy Scotland-bound photography that mixes figurative artistry and unsettling grunge, Refn's created a bloody stump of Herzog-like archaic poetry that's unlike any other.

The story -- if you really want to call it that -- starts in a grimy mud pit dropped in the center of a mountain range around 1000 AD, where a pack of Norse outlanders stage a series of fights to the death for their own morbid, capitalistic pleasure. In steps a stoic, mute and edgy-looking brawler (Mads Mikkelsen, Coco Chanel and Igor Stavinsky) who's missing an eye, essentially the end-all, be-all to these vicious events due to his invincibility. Years of fighting have hardened him into an empty shell who's often referred to as a man brought up from Hell, and after watching him tear through his opponents while he's outside of his wooden cage, you'll wonder that as well. So when he breaks loose from his captors and links up with a pack of Crusaders, all while trekking with a young boy who sheepishly eyed him in his cage, his motives and drivers are, at the very least, suspect.

Valhalla Rising pummels the senses with several grueling fistfights at the beginning, operating as a raw and disturbing indication of One Eye's capabilities, and it achieves exactly what it's after. Following this muddy, bloody carnage, which is stomach-churning on at least two occasions due to some deft prosthetic anatomy work, Refn's experimental parable only flirts with brutality at odd-and-end moments from thereon out. Yet the weight of the beginning looms over One Eye as he confronts that rabble-rouser pack of Crusaders later on, and the ensuing seafaring travels that he engages on with them. When the weathered Viking lets an axe drop further in his hand upon his introduction to the volatile Crusaders, ready to wield, those images seared in our mind instantly flare up. Brutal action hounds get a dose of shock-and-awe at the start, sure, but that initial splattering of mucky violence serves a further intoxicating purpose

Littered with brazenly emblematic flashes bathed in crimson and next-to-no dialogue to break up its primal rumble, Valhalla Rising pursues a deliberate pace after its brash preamble, besieging its audience in menacing, nerve-racking artistry. The angle director Refn takes differs from the content of its seemingly narrative-driven trailer, instead methodically crawling along as an allegory that chews on themes of war, mortality, and spirituality. It incorporates images of a sea of swords on a boat lifted to the heavens like crosses, while bathed in an ominous, repressive brown fog, devising a level of engaging symbolism that plays with the ideas of futility and misdirected enthusiasm among the Crusader's mangled conquest. This hostile uneasiness reaches a potent zenith when the disparate, dehydrated men reach the "paradise" that their leader had been promising -- which is anything but.

Valhalla Rising's most compelling trait rests in the ambiguity around One Eye's place in the world, whether as a bloodthirsty man beleaguered into stoic harshness or actually a satanic tool -- or whether the two have intertwined. Mads Mikkelsen succeeds in creating a unique vessel for this symbolism, wearing the mixture of downtrodden ferocity and emotional barrenness in a compelling light. Just don't expect dramatic depth from his performance, since he's intentionally void for the purposes of the imagery-driven film's design. One Eye's cloaked motivation provokes a lot of questions, which grow more labyrinthine as his attachment to his young companion extends and the troubles surrounding his Crusader compatriots intensify.

When the final act arrives, a maddened motif-heavy rage of slow-motion chaos and trippy visual provocation, Valhalla Rising bursts into a truly unique experience that unabashedly -- and somewhat incomprehensibly -- welds together literal and metaphorical interpretations. Brothers (Brødre) cinematographer Morten Søborg heightens the cascade of insanity with a deft eye for filth-caked beauty, capturing the billowing lyricism with an eye for both its abandon and the earthy setting's haunting al fresco splendor. While some might see the primordial whirlpool of eye-scorching bedlam an exercise of style over substance, that'd be a disservice to the visceral way Refn communicates an ominous balance between staunchly-perceived realism and an alluring flirtation with the otherworldly. This is an uncompromising and searing piece of work that'll linger, but one shouldn't expect much of a clear-cut elucidation to its meditation. And I really like that about it.

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