By Tiger Joseph
What’s he saying?
He says we’re in hell.
Fog slithers up and around the mountains in the post-Christ world of Valhalla Rising. Imbalanced yet focused, Nicolas Winding Refn’s viking era epic tells a cryptic, archetypal tale about a brutal, mute warrior known only as One-Eye, whose resolve to reach the goal to reach the ultimate sacrifice is shadowed only by his willingness to gut and gore all who oppose him.
This is not a film for mass, mindless consumption, it is work of art. Refn did not create this film to satisfy a demographic, he created it to satisfy the need to tell a story. This shall be reflected accordingly in this review.
From here on out, there will be spoilers. Go watch the film first, cretin.
“The submarine journey to the unknown”
The films narrative structure is the inherent problem most viewers have with the film. Simply put, this film is very slow and drawn out. Valhalla Rising has three distinct acts, separated into 6 parts. Initially, we follow One-Eye as a captive to Vikings in Sutherland. After a brutal escape sequence, we wander with One-Eye and his new child follower to a camp of Christian Norsemen, where the two join the Christians to travel to the “Holy Land”. On a small boat, the group traverses the Northern Atlantic and toys with death and seawater. Finally, the group reaches the “Holy Land” where the external and internal forces of chaotic nature cut the crusaders down to bloody shreds.
The film is slow and unnerving throughout, with cryptic dialogue pressed between long periods of silence and contemplation from the characters. Some itching for action may grow weary after the first fifteen minutes, as the jarring spikes of violence are sparsely spread out through the film.
In multiple interviews, Refn states Valhalla Rising is influenced greatly by the films he grew up with, most notably the seminal science fiction film 2oo1: A Space Odyssey, directed by the great Stanley Kubrick and Jorodowsky’s El Topo. The films journey plot, set pieces, Christian themes and nearly silent script of less than 150 words lends the film an archetypal nature.
Characterization of a mute
Notice how the scar pattern resembles the Eye of Horus.
There are no heroes or villains in Valhalla Rising. Every character, except for the naive, unnamed boy that follows One-Eye, commits acts of reprehensible treachery no god can look down upon and say was partook in good faith. However, through this mess of morals, one aspect Refn succeeds in is how he characterizes One-Eye. Initially, he places him on a mountainside, caged against his will and bound at the neck, an early way Refn creates empathy towards the character. Along with the imprisonment, his first fight is a two versus one scenario, a serious disadvantage towards him considering he is also tied at the neck. After breaking free from captivity and letting the boy travel with him, One-Eye viciously defends the child wherever they go. Refn also gives the savage a fatherly edge by having him be a guardian angel for the boy during the long journey. He is hyperprotective of him, and little touches like carrying the boy on his back while walking up the mountain show One-Eye has some sense of empathy.
The only other character which has some form of personality is the leader of the Christian Norsemen, “The General”, played by the hearty Ewan Stewart. With a mind set solely on conquest in god’s name, the character brings some entertaining arrogance to the story. Interestingly, when the expedition to the Holy Land becomes a disaster and his men are getting picked off one by one, this actually strengthens his will to the point of insanity to pave the New World in the name of god. I very much enjoyed the character because he is psychologically accurate. A person who is demoralized is unable to assess true information (as a side note, this is why armageddon cults can continue to keep hold of members even after their inane end of the world prophecies do not come true.)
Unfortunately, Refn fails to flesh out the other Vikings to a considerable degree. Except for the aforementioned General, none of the Norsemen give an outstanding performance. Muttered dialogue is a constant between the actors, and although every reaction to death or pain is realistic and gut-wrenching, that aspect alone is simply not enough for a complete performance.
One thing to note about the Vikings is they never seem like a camaraderie, in fact, there actually seems to be the edging of contempt for each other. When One-Eye stabs one of them on the longboat, he is accused of killing “one of our men”, instead of uttering the victim’s given name. Later, when one of the Norsemen is sniped in the neck by an arrow and screeches for help by the boot of another, all he gets is a swift “Fuck off!”. Finally, after drinking The General’s psychedelic alcohol mixture, one viking actually rapes another and lets him suffer in the black mud.
If there is one reason to sit through the one hour and forty minute runtime of Valhalla Rising, it is the gorgeous aesthetics of the early medieval world Refn crafts. To get the amazing shots, Refn uses the cinematography skills of the capable Morten Søborg, who worked with Mikkelsen and Refn in the Pusher series. Shot with Red digital camera, every frame in this film is a masterpiece. The framing of the characters and objects in particular is world class. Refn has a great ability to show just the right amount of action in the frame, as shown in the disembowelment scene.
Due to Refn’s color blindness, a high contrast color palette is expected. Vibrant warm colors work in tandem with silvery dark blues to heighten the mood of the film to a great degree, most notably the scene on the longboat. Stark orange lighting along with atmospheric fog rolling around the boat gives the shots an otherworldly glow. Along with these stunning colors, every character looks worn and ragged, with war torn garments and muddy faces galore. Period accurate weaponry and clothing adds to the authentic feel of the film. Funnily enough, Native Americans are covered head to toe in orange mud paint, giving them a distinct look compared to the stereotypical Native American.
An instance of the fantastic lighting during the boat scene
The violence and gruesome imagery throughout is the most polarizing aspect of Valhalla Rising. Bare knuckle fights to the death, throat biting, executions and a very slow stomach disembowelment are a casual forray of what you can expect from the film. Refn’s attention to detail during the fights allow the cinephile to appreciate the violence to a higher degree. As an example, listen for the subtle bear growls timed with One-Eye’s hacks through his Norse captors.
The old man is being received by god.
Modern action movies treat violence as gratuitous for the ADHD infected viewing audience. They do not treat acts of violence as the terrible, horrifying acts they are. Action movie directors often makes scenes of immense violence an almost comical venture, with disposable enemies and a complete lack of moral conflict for an otherwise jovial main hero. The infrequent goring in Valhalla Rising works in its favor for two ways. One-Eye kills does not kill mindlessly for audience pleasure. Truthfully, the mute kills only in revenge or self-defense, killing only who is necessary. Second, the kills are truly brutal, which works in the films context. It heightens the reality beyond most other films struggle to reach in the first place. The fact the violence is sparingly placed throughout the film allows the viewer much breathing room between kills.
The shadow realizes his fate.
The film’s score is understated and serves to heighten the mood greatly. After disliking the period-friendly music, Refn decided to go full experimental with a demonic, mechanical synth score. Heavy scratchy bass and atmospheric white noise interlaced with organs and flashes of orchestra define the music choice of the film. It intertwines greatly with the tone. Refn’s decision to leave certain sections without music was a nice touch, for in these scenes, we can focus on the details in the characters designs greatly.
The locale the audience is treated with in Valhalla Rising gives the film realistic ground to stand on. Shot entirely in Scotland in real locations, the rollings hills of the Sutherland contain an eerie atmosphere. Fog is used bigly to add a claustrophobic aura to the film. During the boat scene, the ocean is unnaturally calm and shrouded with fog. This forces the audience’s focus onto the ship to a greater degree than it would with an open, clear sea. The parts set in North America contrast the single type of landscape in Sutherland. Grand trees and fantastic, rocky mountains watch over plentiful lakes and black mud holes. Daytime scenes are have an almost innocent tone to them, with gorgeous sunlight shimmering through the trees. When violence strikes, however, the skies are always gray and dark. Tone!
The big reason the aesthetics work so well is the huge lack noticeable CGI. Every scene in this film was shot with practical effects and real sets. This means the film will not age poorly (except for the blood sprays).
Learn from this, Pedowood.
Carl Jung’s idea of the shadow is a seminal idea of psychology. Paraphrased, Jung said the shadow of a human being must reach all the way to hell so the person can reach heaven. I believe, whether intentional or not, Valhalla Rising is about the integration of the boy’s shadow, symbolized by One-Eye, into the unconscious mind of the boy. Along with this, this is also a fairly bitter critique of traditional Christianity; and how the Crusaders themselves were not walking with the true god.
One-Eye starts the film, chained by the neck, in a mountain cage, which serves as a metaphor for the boy’s mind. He is shackled inside a majority of the time, but sometimes, One-Eye is forced out of his cage to fight other prisoners. This is the first stage, the boy knows violence exists, but at this stage, it is controlled and purely for entertainment. We learn One-Eye has the power of seeing the future, an all seeing eye to future events if you want to use nifty pun.
One-Eye, while bathing in water (which has a meaning by itself), acquires an arrowhead. Submerging under water is used is this film as metaphorical integration of certain concepts. One-Eye gains the arrowhead, he can now harm more than just other prisoners, now he can attack his captors. Which, of course, he does.
Now both broken free of their chains, the boy’s social hierarchy and OE’s physical bar and shackle, they decide to travel together to synthesize with one another. Reaching the recently conquered pagan camp now held by Christians. Talking to them in council, we get this neat exchange of dialogue:
He was brought up from hell.
So where is it, this hell?
On the other side of the ocean.
For one, the kid blatantly states OE is from hell, or where the Jungian shadow is from as well. Secondly, the phrase “other side of the ocean” can be interpreted. Oceans, and more specifically sailing on bodies of water, throughout literature have a meta meaning. It is the physical riding of the border between chaotic unknown depths and known surface world. More simply, a gateway to the unknown or the known.
On the boat, a Viking dies drinking seawater. The boat scene itself is mesmerizing and unsettling. The water is flat the whole time, nobody rows and there is a thick fog around the boat the whole time with no wind. Almost like hell’s waiting room.
Yet again, we get another interesting quote, this time from a Crusader to the boy, explaining to him Christ’s sacrifice.
He sacrificed his life…
…so that we could be free
from pain and misery.
For all intents and purposes, this is an incorrect interpretation of the Bible. Rather, it is a self eating lie, a delusional rambling. Pain and misery will always exist in the world, it is human nature and god’s given free will. Why would Jesus absolve pain and suffering, the greatest gift god has ever given man? The ability to grow and foster the hero inside! This is the enemy the child must deal with, the self-contradicting, arrogant side of humanity. The side integrating the shadow destroys. The Crusaders are on a quest covered by a grand lie. They wish to travel to the Holy Land while acting out the path to hell.
Then, the Crusaders conjure up the idea that the boy somehow laid a curse onto the ship which is why they are not getting anywhere. Thus, the boy is attacked by an angered Viking but is quickly slain by OE who rides to the boy’s defense as if he foresaw the attack coming.
Finally, the group reaches the “Holy Land”, North America.
After encountering burial grounds, the Crusaders craft a makeshift cross. Then, they continue moving until they are beached and one of the men is attacked by an arrow.
As the General’s men get picked off by mysterious arrows, OE’s axe or become lost, the leader of the Crusaders actually denies that his conquest is a disaster. His view on Christianity is a twisted lie, and he gets so consumed by the falsehood of his being he becomes unhealthily obsessive over the cause of conquest under God’s name.
He and the Crusaders are people in denial. They know what they are doing is wrong and against god’s true word, but cannot break out of the lie they have all bought into so heavily.
Eventually, everyone, even the boy, drinks from a strange brew the General passes around. Then, the film gets insane. This whole scene could be picked apart and viciously analyzed piece by piece, but I will just extract the base message I got from it.
One Crusader rolls around in the grass, one stares at his own reflection in the water, the General “prays” with his sword in knee deep water, and OE builds a cairn (more on that in a second), but the boy witnesses the worst. In the black mud, one Crusader rapes another. The child has now seen the darkness of man realized, bodily subjugation over another. Refn visually shows this by placing a shot of the a moving ocean, upside down and red colored, right after the reaction shot from the boy. An exploding stream of consciousness that this is true evil
This is hell.
The group reconvenes, the lost Crusader from earlier returns, painted orange by the Natives, and remarks “He says we’re in hell.” This could mean a “native” from hell can understand OE without him physically speaking. Finally, the one Crusader decides to state the true intentions of the voyage.
You promised us riches.
And the Holy Lands.
Well, One-Eye took us to hell.
And there is no God.
The Crusaders were only in it for the earthly rewards, for once he realizes he cannot get them, he denounces God. Immediately after, he attacks OE out of spite, and instead him and two other Crusaders are killed because of it.
The boy is faced with a decision. Continue with One-Eye or stay with the remaining two Christians. Of course, he follows his shadow.
The General dies soon after, on the water, praying. He is shot by three arrows. his body floats under the water, indicating the death of the chronic denial arrogant conquest. The theme of water being the subconscious returns. By choosing to finish the story with OE, even after he demonstrated utmost brutality, he refuses to take the path of the self-destroying lie. With the dead General floating underwater, this concept crystallizes.
Walking up the mountain, the kid rides on OE’s back. At the top of the mountain, in the final scene of dialogue we have an important quote.
He says I’m gonna reach the sea.
Gonna build a new boat.
Gonna go home.
The first set proves what is going to happen to the boy. He will come out of hell a new man, one with the knowledge that he has the capability to do great harm, and return to his homeland.
Finally, they reach the rock, just One-Eye and the boy. Surrounded by Natives of hell, OE sacrifices himself to them. They disperse, leaving the boy. His parallel spirit, still at the cairn, stands in water around it. As the shadow submerges, OE is gone, but the cairn remains, being the crystallized idea of the shadow. No longer will OE walk with him, for he will now be erected inside of the boy, permanently. Finally, the camera pans up, and One-Eye’s face briefly appears in the clouds.
The boy has successfully synchronized with his shadow, for One-Eye has now entered in the meta area of higher consciousness, symbolized by the sky.
This section will be less organized and these are merely some interesting thoughts I have yet to fully crystallize
One perception of this film is One-Eye is actually the Norse Allfather Odin and this film is Refn’s attempt to guide the Christians to Hel.
Certain visual cues also point that One-Eye is a manifestation of the boy’s shadow, and thus, is the boy to some extent. The boy’s shiny blonde locks cover his left eye in certain contrast shots, especially where the framing is consistent, imitating OE’s gouged out eyehole.
Both of their heads are in the right third of the frame during each of these shots.
Conclusion and Refn
For all its flaws, Valhalla Rising is one of the best films from the 2000’s. The combination of top tier visuals, a thought provoking structure and harsh, realistic violence makes it a welcome addition to cinema history. The mysterious nature of One-Eye and his boy follower serves as a testament to how ambiguity can be used correctly in the world of increasing direct, dumbed down cinema.