Deprava and I were desperate for a topic we could discuss on the podcast, and since I had recently downloaded Valhalla Rising, I naively suggested we watch and review it. Little did I know I was going to subject us to one of all time’s most misguidedly pretentious indie foreign movies.
The term “like watching a train wreck” gets thrown around a lot, but Valhalla Rising is nothing “like” watching a train wreck. It is one. It’s also a burning building, a car wreck, and any other of the innumerable tragedies that can befall people. Anyone who knows anything about film knows not to give Danes or Swedes money and a camera. And yes, Ingmar Bergman, that means you, too. It must be something about the cold, or just the general condition of Nordic countries, but these people do not know how to have fun. I guess the only thing they can do up there is think about life’s hardship and man’s cruel nature. Their films reflect this.
Anyway, some British film studio decided to give some money to Nicolas Winding Refn, who is Danish. As in the country, not the delicious cheese pastry. And that is how this film was born. Mr. Winding Refn went to film school. I’m sure of this. I know he attended the class where they discussed the close-up shot of a man’s face in the left foreground, with another man standing farther behind him in the right background. Unfortunately, I don’t think he showed up for any more classes, as that shot makes up about 85% of the movie. And in these shots, people have conversations. As in, the dude in the foreground talks to the guy behind him. I guess people didn’t face each other to speak in the 11th century. Maybe eye contact is a relatively new social norm. I don’t know. People stand around a lot in the film. About 25 minutes of the movie are just guys standing, not doing anything. In Scotland, on a boat, in Canada (yes, Canada), wherever. People do lots of standing in this film in front of a tripod-free camera. Let me just rephrase everything very clearly. This movie’s director had no idea what he was doing.
Now that we’ve established the director’s incompetence, let’s get to the film itself. The protagonist is a viking named One-eye who is being held as a slave in Scotland. Or he may be Scottish, too. I don’t know, but nothing else in the movie has anything to do with the Norse, and since it’s called Valhalla Rising, I’m assuming One-eye is a viking. Humor me. He doesn’t speak, and is being held prisoner by 5 Scottish dudes in the middle of nowhere and forced to fight people. I don’t know where they get those people; there’s not a village in sight. One-eye can see the future, which is helpful, but he sees it in red. Because you know, just seeing the future is a pointless plot device, but seeing it in red lends all sorts of artistic and thematic elements….like….the color red. Anyway, One-eye escapes from, and kills, his captors and then runs into a group of about 10 Christians on the way to Jerusalem for the Crusades. They recruit him because the plot demands it, and they get lost on the way to Jerusalem and end up in America. They must have taken a wrong turn in Albuquerque…or China. It’s all equally close to Jerusalem and America. Once they arrive in the new world, which is hell by the way, a half-assed Heart of Darkness routine starts up and they all die at the end. Sorry for the spoiler, but it’s an Anglo-Danish indie movie, so if you were expecting a happy ending you need professional help. Oh, and I meant that literally about the US/Canada being hell. The movie is split up into chapters, and as soon as they arrive to the new world, which looks suspiciously like just a different part of Scotland, we see “Chapter V: Hell” flash onscreen. Real subtle. I’d say this is the director making a political statement, but I honestly have no idea what the hell was going on in the movie.
I’m now going to describe the film’s climax, and I think you’ll get a much clearer picture of what kind of movie this is. Note: the following all takes place in slow motion, and with guitar reverb humming in the background. So the climax switches back and forth between 4 different events. In one event, One-eye wades into a river and stacks stones up on each other on an island. That’s it; no explanation as to why. As the guitar reverb intensifies, the scene switches between the stone stacking, a boy sitting on a river bank, a man sodomizing another man, the old war-band leader praying, and another guy licking his own reflection in the river water. All in slow motion, of course. All very high brow.
The movie is plagued by so many other problems; it’s hard to keep everything straight. For example, in every single fight sequence, One-eye dives forward, chops at a guy’s leg, and then slits the dude’s throat. There’s about 5 fight scenes, and he does the same damn move in every one. Did they only have enough budget for one day of action choreography? The movie is racist as hell, too. American Indians are pretty much analogous to the soulless, sub-human blacks of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. The movie just has no point. The protagonist is a shadow; he may as well not have been there. He doesn’t speak, and we never learn anything about his past, his personality, nothing. He’s just a cut out these stupid Christians take with them to Canada. And please, I don’t mean Christians are stupid, but these specific Christians clearly are. The acting overall is awful. That’s all I’ll say about that. And there’s no music. The soundtrack is either thrumming guitar or someone slamming their palms down on an organ and holding the keys down. I think the director may have just handed random instruments to a toddler and recorded the result. Oh! How could I forget, One-eye is accompanied by a young boy through the movie. Hm…silent warrior and a young companion…boy that’s totally new! There’s lots more I could mention but it relates directly to the plot, what little of it there is, and I don’t want to completely ruin the movie.
I’m about 80% sure the dialogue was written by a high 19 year old philosophy minor for extra credit. First of all, every damn line is mumbled and/or whispered. No Toastmasters here. Every line is a short, declarative sentence. They must not have had conjunctions in 11th century Scotland though they did speak contemporary Scottish with a contemporary Scottish accent. For example, early in the film a chieftain says (with the shaky cam in his face. The person he is addressing if of course standing about 10 feet behind him. And remember, it’s all whispered/mumbled):
“You can’t trust Christians. (10 second pause). I hear tell they eat their own God. (5 second pause) His blood and flesh. (10 second pause). They only have one God. (15 second pause). We have many Gods.”
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, that is a line from the movie. It’s true. Later in the film One-eye is staring at the sky, and a man he’d recently crucified asks him “What do you see?(10 second pause). Do you see yourself?” That shit is deep, bro. Like a well.
I have never seen such misguided self importance. The makers of this film had their heads so far up their own ass they came back out of their own mouths in a ridiculous ouroboros ring of pretension. To be honest, I laughed my butt off from start to finish, so if you have the right kind of sense of humor you may enjoy the movie. I do not recommend it though.