Watch It Wednesday: Valhalla Rising

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So as I said last week I have an abundance of movies that I’ve never actually bothered to watch. I have since resolved to unearth these unknown nuggets week by week, and then report back here.

Sadly I’ve not got any selection system yet, so I impulse-picked Valhalla Rising for our first film. I purchased this pre-owned from HMV for £1.70 approximately 18 months ago. The disk was untarnished, and was probably only watched once previously. After my Wednesday night viewing, it probably won’t get another.

I can see why the former owner (and myself) picked it up. Look at the cover! Look at it!

Valhalla Rising (Eng)

It’s all Hollywood lies! There is no Viking horde! The main guy doesn’t even hold a sword in the film, let alone that particular blade. What I should have taken note of is the fact that it was directed by Nicolas Winding Refn. For the record, Hiptser assassins, I enjoyed Bronson, and I very much liked Drive, so get off my back. Valhalla Rising, however…was mystifying.

If you’ve seen Drive you’ll be familiar with NWR’s style of sparse dialogue, vivid colours and long, intense shots. Valhalla Rising takes this to the next level. Badass Mads Mikkelsen who played the bleedy-eyed bastard in Casino Royale, is the main character, One-Eye. He’s called One-Eye because he cleverly only has one eye. The other has been smashed out at some other point. Regardless he looks like a hard dude.

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Now, I don’t know if they got Mads on a pay-per-word contract, or if they were trying to make him go full Arnold/Terminator mode because he doesn’t say a single line in the film. In fact the entire movie makes Arnold’s dialogue in Conan the Barbarian look overly verbose. There are more words on the DVD cover than there are in the film itself.

Anyway Mads plays this mad One-Eye who is a captive of some Vikings. He’s a slave, who fights others in a muddy take on game of gladiator. Despite being tethered up, and often against two at once, he still manages to cripple the hell out of all the poor idiots who inexplicably challenge him.

At this point you think the film is going to be awesome. It’s gory, there’s an ace moment where he smashes some guy’s skull with a rock and it looks very real (though the majority of the blood-splatters in this are all digital – sad times), and despite the lack of speech or quick editing, it begins to build your hopes up. There’s even a steamy disembowelling.

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One-Eye can see the future in quick, glowing red images, which are a stark contrast to the dull grey landscape. In one of these visions he sees himself escaping his captors, which he does in pretty badass fashion. He then leaves with the only boy who was kind enough to feed him during his captivity.

If the film ended here, you’d be left thirsty for more. Sadly, you get more. And it’s not good. It’s like having great foreplay, then woefully dull sex. At points you may fall asleep, and at the end you’re kind of glad it’s all over.

Mads and Boy run into some Christian missionaries who want to go to the Holy Land to stir up some trouble. Because he’s got nothing better to do, he decides to go with them. Cue one long and misty boat ride and they arrive somewhere that looks suspiciously similar to where they just left.

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At this point two of the crew have died, one at the hand of One-Eye, the other by thirst. But this fact is almost not worth mentioning, as it was such a chore getting through this section of the movie. Once ashore the main Christian dude heralds it as His land and sets out to cleanse the land of heathens in His name. To celebrate he gets out a flask of crazy water, everyone has a swig and then shit gets really odd. One guy rapes another, One-Eye plays with rocks, and another is assassinated by arrows fired from the trees Apocalypse Now style.

The rest then turn on One-Eye and he easily messes them up. He then decides to go for a walk, climbs up a hill, meanders over some rocks, finds the ocean and then turns around to see a tribe of clay-clad primitives surrounding him. “At last!” you think he might actually get tested for a change. Instead he strolls out into their midst, lays down his axe, and lets himself get battered to death. The film then ends.

Confusing, no?

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Okay, so I don’t mind having to think during a film. I just don’t like having to make notes during a film. I shouldn’t have to search for the meaning for each action or each piece of dialogue. It should be more natural, more dare-I-say Hollywood. If I’m constantly having to think “oh, maybe this symbolises this” or “is he meant to be Jesus?” the film has lost me. Any film has lost me where I’m more aware that I don’t know what is really going on. I love subtext and metaphor, but when this is the cut and thrust of the entire story, something is lost.

Total Recall (original, not remake – who do you think I am?!) is perhaps the perfect example of what I’m talking about here. It’s an effective, even basic narrative which you can take whatever you want from. However underlying this is the notion that the entire film is all just a dream. Or was it? Blade Runner skirted this too with the whole “is Deckard a replicant” (he’s not) subtext, but again director Ridley Scott focused a little too much time on this as opposed to the actual narrative of the film.

I’ll admit the meaning of this film is lost on me. It could be about Jesus, or any other mystical bollocks. I don’t know. After reading for a few hours, I’ve managed to find a whole host of theories. Some suggest he’s Odin (this is pretty badass, I’ll admit), others see it as the death of religious freedom etc etc. I did find one interesting interview with NWR himself, but even he doesn’t give a clear idea of what the hell is going on.

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All this arty, thinky stuff maybe very clever and interesting, yes, but it doesn’t makes a film about an ultra-Viking warrior any more fun to watch. Ultimately, like the DVD cover, that initial premise is just a promise unfulfilled.

Visually and aurally the film is stunning. The tone is one of inevitable foreboding throughout. Which is cool. You don’t  get such nihilistic films very often. Like Drive, the film has a great atmosphere. The actors are good, the make-up, costume and location highly authentic. However as you can probably tell I found it overall very unfulfilling.

I felt Drive struck more of a balance of art meets narrative meets film. In this, the narrative is very much open for interpretation. Too much so. Too much for me, at any rate.

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One thought on “Watch It Wednesday: Valhalla Rising

  1. Pingback: Hummingbird Review- Watch it Wednesday | The Movie Bastards

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