Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Video Review: "Valhalla Rising"

"Valhalla Rising" starts out in an interesting place, and goes to a less interesting place. This Danish/British production (in English) is the evocative tale of One Eye, a gladiator slave to the Vikings who has no history, nothing to say, and has no identity beyond his ability to kill, which borders on the supernatural. We wonder how it was that he lost that eye, since it would seem to indicate someone got the better of him in combat, at least temporarily.

Based on the bouts we witness, this would not seem possible. One Eye fights at a disadvantage, his neck chained to a post, since the Vikings will not risk him getting free. It matters not. During one match, two opponents cheat by attacking him simultaneously, before his hands have even been untied, and yet he still prevails handily.

The Viking chieftains pass around ownership of One Eye every few years, like some treasure too valuable for any one of them to possess permanently. There's some tension because his current master has held onto him for what the others feel is too long.

Forced to sell him for want of money, the chieftain's last conversation with One Eye is revealing: "Who are you?" As always, no answer is received. After more than five years, he knows nothing about the silent warrior.

Mads Mikkelsen -- who sported another freakish eye prosthetic in "Casino Royale" -- plays One Eye with a stoic calm. There's a mystic quality to the man, who has visions limned in red fire that often come to pass.

His only friend, if you can call it that, is the boy (Maarten Stevenson) who brings him food. He's the only one who will go into One Eye's cage, perhaps because the Vikings believe he will not kill a mere boy, or perhaps because the lad's life has so little value to them that they wouldn't care if he did.

Director Nicolas Winding Refn, who co-wrote the screenplay with Roy Jacobsen, shoots these early scenes with an amazing dream-like quality. The looming hills are perpetually shrouded in mist, and the men who traipse between them seem like the only humans on earth. The Vikings, their apparel and weapons, is astonishingly authentic -- grimy, battered, utilitarian.

One Eye finally breaks his bonds -- in his typically brutal, blood-spurting way, which Refn does not shirk his gaze away from-- and the boy decides to follow him. The chieftain predicts that he will return to wreak vengeance upon them, surmising that he's a man consumed by hatred.

Perhaps this was his intention, but then a strange encounter happens: One Eye and the boy come across some Christian Vikings who are on their way to Jerusalem to free it from the infidels. Upon realizing who he is, they invite One Eye to join them on their holy quest. Religion -- whether pagan or Christian -- is not part of One Eye's shtick, but nonetheless he accompanies them.

(The Christians also had a dozen or so women in their custody, kept naked and huddled, whose origin and disposition after they've left is never hinted it. They would seem to be sex slaves, and how that fits with the Vikings' professed faith is left deliberately vague.)

The mini-Crusade gets stuck at sea for weeks in a blanket of mist, no wind or current, and thirst and hunger grow dire. Divisions rise up between the men, fueled by superstition about curses, and there are some deaths.

They finally reach land, but not a Holy one. It's a lush forest of hills and stones -- America, perhaps, or even Australia? There are cairns holding corpses that could be either Native American or Aborigine in origin.

I won't say too much more about what happens, other than the film shirks off its narrative cohesion, like a reptile shedding its skin, and becomes more of a contemplative tone poem -- less "Braveheart" than "Aguirre, The Wrath of God." The boy, who had been acting as interpreter for One Eye (though we suspect he was faking it), becomes the oracle of an earthbound god pronouncing his judgment on those that remain.

The last half of the movie is strange, loopy and doesn't seem to fit with the first half. Still, I enjoyed the relentless moodiness of the film, and its redolent images. I don't think it's for everyone, but its contemplation of the convergence between violence and faith is certainly never dull.

One Eye in some ways is a Celtic cousin of Mad Max, roaming an unknown wasteland after his purpose for living has disappeared. There is only survival, although eventually that becomes less important, too.

DVD extras are practically non-existent, limited to a theatrical trailer.

Movie: 3 stars out of four
Extras: 1 star

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