Valhalla Rising: A masterclass in cinematic stillness

With The Green Knight, David Lowery’s adaptation of the old Arthurian tale, set for release on July 30 in the US, I’m revisiting Valhalla Rising, a violent but meditative Viking tale that features a similar infusion of psychedelia, nature and a medieval setting. The following is as much analysis as review, so — as usual — spoilers abound.

Like many of Nicolas Winding Refn’s films, Valhalla Rising has a reputation as a “love it or hate it” kind of film. For some, its vicious yet matter-of-fact violence is a non-starter. For others, the film’s almost eerie stillness, both sonically and visually, makes for a strange and off-putting experience. But for me, these elements and more make for one of the most original and absorbing depictions of Vikings ever put to film.

Released in 2009, Rising stars Mads Mikkelsen fresh off his claim to superstardom as a Bond villain in Casino Royale. Mikkelsen is a mysterious, one-eyed Norse warrior known only as One-Eye, who is kept as a slave in the Scottish Highlands and forced to fight other slaves to the death. He does so with brutal efficiency. His moniker is given to him by a boy (Maarten Stevenson) — who belongs to the clan but often seems more like a fellow slave — because One-Eye is mute.

“The boy” speaks for One-Eye, but Maarten Stevenson’s greatest contribution to the role is the way he convincingly builds a relationship between the two characters without the help of two-way dialogue.

Despite being the most straightforward part of the film in terms of narrative, the opening is also quite mysterious. Why is One-Eye being forced to fight like some kind of Viking Mandingo? We learn from the opening title card that this is a time of religious persecution, in which Christians have brought the fire and brimstone of the ongoing First Crusade to Scotland and are violently persecuting the “heathen” Scandinavians. It is also implied that the money earned from betting on these Viking brawls is the only defense the tribes of the Highlands have left against the Christians.

Truth be told, this opening setup is never given a satisfactory explanation, and it doesn’t need one. It exists to show us that One-Eye is an odd kind of savage, ruthlessly effective in combat but curiously unmoved by the violence he creates.

From the outset, we know there is something different about One-Eye. Even those not versed in Norse Mythology might recognize the missing eye as a reference to Odin, the venerated god who often appeared to humans in the guise of a one-eyed wanderer (the eye having been exchanged for the gift of wisdom). One-Eye also experiences red-tinted visions that turn out to be accurate visions of the future.

Soon enough, One-Eye makes his escape with the boy in tow, and the film becomes something that is less concerned with plot than with an allegorical descent into Hell. But rather than show this descent through hellish imagery, Refn chooses to depict consistently beautiful — if unforgiving — landscapes. Much like One-Eye himself, the land plays host to violence but keeps it at a cold distance, remaining stoic and picturesque regardless of the madness and bloodshed that plays out in its domain. Indeed, one gets the sense over the course of the film that One-Eye shares some kind of connection with the natural world.

Hell on Earth

The descent begins when One-Eye and the boy meet a troupe of Christian Crusaders who intend to make the journey to Jerusalem. Interestingly, the Christians do not reject the obviously heathen One-Eye, instead speculating that he might bring them luck on their journey to the Holy Land. Like the omamori charms of Japanese Buddhism to an American Christian, One-Eye is an exotic curiosity to the crusaders. Though they are aware of his brutally effective reputation as a warrior, they underestimate him. But One-Eye, who appears to have no particular destination of his own, agrees to accompany the crusaders on their journey.

Understandably, this is where the film begins to lose some viewers. The groups embarks in a simple canoe, seemingly ill-prepared for a journey of this magnitude, and we are made to feel their lethargy and desperation as the canoe sits on dead water in the middle of a dense fog for days on end. We already have a silent protagonist and a mostly-silent score. The canoe journey, then, is a kind of visual silence, a stillness that settles over us as viewers much like the fog that drapes over the crusaders.

More time rowing, less time praying?

As filmgoers, we are used to seeing visual cues that let us know when something important is happening. A stagnant image, then, reflects stagnation. But while the ever-present fog around the canoe blocks out any evidence of a transition, there is a transformation happening under our noses all the while. The crew begin to regard One-Eye with distrust, suspecting that he has cursed them to be stranded for all eternity or, worse, is leading them to Hell (Hel in Norse terms), where the boy says One-Eye is from.

Eventually, after a few ill-fated outbreaks of violence against One-Eye, the group arrives in a new land, though the not the one they had set out for. Refn’s direction pays such exquisite attention to the details of the landscape that we need no obvious cues to tell us they have arrived in North America, even as feathered arrows begin to fly from the treeline.

All of a sudden, we recognize the toll the journey has taken on the crusaders. One of them wanders off, only to return covered in reddish brown clay and with the apparent ability to hear One-Eye speaking. Others seem to regress into something like a vegetative state, their heads lolling to the side, their eyes staring into the distance. The leader of the crusaders is convinced that they must conquer this land in the name of the Lord, and he is almost comically persistent in this belief no matter what misfortunes befall the crew. Only One-Eye seems relatively unaffected, though his visions seem to increase in frequency and intensity.

It’s tempting to assume the group has literally arrived in Hell, especially when a chapter title seems to announce as much, but the truth is that the crusaders have found themselves far outside their element. They are in a land they neither know nor are capable of conquering, a land filled with unfamiliar artifacts and funeral pyres that seem satanic to their eyes. To make matters worse, arrows sometimes zip through the air from out of nowhere, striking them down without a moment’s notice. Now more than ever, the film’s carefully considered cinematography emphasizes that the land is so much bigger than these characters, so full of secrets they can never hope to penetrate.

A crusader ponders his future in this strange new land.

This segment of the film feels heavily inspired by Dead Man, Jim Jarmusch’s so-called “acid western” that also features disembodied arrows appearing from nowhere like divine karmic forces. Even the soundtrack, which begins to rise in intensity as madness overtakes the group, seems to echo Neil Young’s dark, improvised score to that film. Dead Man is a fitting influence, given that both films set their protagonists marching toward an inevitable destiny of sacrifice and death. In this case, One-Eye’s visions tell him he will soon meet his end at the hands of the local natives. Rather than attempt to avoid his fate, he stays the course with all the calm certainty of a man who knows more than he will ever let on.

By now, it’s obvious that One-Eye is more than a man, especially when it’s revealed that he has been speaking to the boy the whole time without actually speaking. One-Eye is clearly some kind of god or higher spirit; as one character says quite early in film, “the Christians have but one god. We have many.”

It seems a bit too on the nose to assume that he is Odin, though his act of sacrifice in the film’s final moments echoes Odin’s sacrificial hanging from the sacred tree Yggdrasil. The boy’s claim that he comes from Hell (which now has some authority, given that we can assume he heard this from One-Eye himself) also complicates his origins.

Regardless, it’s his purpose, not his name, that is important. The film’s finale finds him and the boy surrounded by natives — the same natives that appeared in the vision of his death. He touches the boy’s arm tenderly, perhaps the first genuine display of emotion he has shown in the film, and then he offers himself to the natives unarmed. The message is clear: take me, leave the boy. One-Eye’s purpose, it turns out, is to protect the boy.

Only now, as One-Eye is beaten to death and his spirit walks peacefully into a lake, do we fully understand the arc of the film. The crusaders, who are mostly converted Vikings that drop their faith the moment things begin to get dicey, are bereft of purpose. Promised riches by their devout leader, they had been more than willing to set out for Jerusalem, but North America has nothing to plunder, nothing to ravage. There are only trees, grass, and the hot sun. Robbed of their thin motivations, the minds of the crusaders rot.

Good luck with that.

The boy, on the other hand, finds purpose in One-Eye, who he comes to regard with the respect and deprecating humor one reserves for a father. Even in death, we sense the boy will be protected; One-Eye’s face appears in the clouds as the film ends, his spirit having been taken back into nature.

Most of this is communicated to the audience through quiet glances and near-silent images, adding up to a film that ultimately feels profoundly peaceful. That’s a novelty, sure, but it’s more than that: to watch Valhalla Rising is to regard humanity — in all its violence, pride, greed, fear, and love — through the serene eye of that ever-present, silent witness: the landscape.

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