RECAP: Valhalla Rising

Valhalla Rising (2009): Nicolas Winding Refn

Norse mythology is ascendant in recent years in the culture. Thor and American Gods are the chief examples, of course, but Nicolas Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising addresses the mythos in a distant, forgotten (or perhaps never known) past.

Released in only two theaters in North America, Valhalla Rising grossed $30,638. Inception, opening the same day (2010, Stateside), probably earned that in 20 minutes.

So what? Valhalla Rising is a terrific movie full of great visuals, moody music, mind-bending pacing, gory violence, and a silent warrior.

ONE SENTENCE PLOT SUMMARY: Silent but deadly, a mute warrior named One Eye leads Christian Norsemen to the New World. 

Hero (8/10)

He has no name. He never speaks. He fights for money…for his owners. He’s called…One Eye.

In a breakout, wordless role, Mads Mikkelsen plays a silent warrior and ruthless killer. He doesn’t have a name at first. Another character is forced to speak his name. So, he calls him One Eye. Dude only has one eye, so it makes sense.

See, he's got one eye, so you call him One Eye.
See, he’s got one eye, so you call him One Eye.

Only a subtle, imposing actor like Mikkelsen could have pulled off One Eye. He literally never speaks. He doesn’t even grunt. Does he breathe? We don’t know if that’s by choice or because he cannot, and it doesn’t matter. Mikkelsen uses gestures and expressions to carry the emotional load, and he plays the role like a master.

One Eye begins the film in a cage atop a mountain. Some local chiefs in the Old World bet on their prisoners fighting each other. One Eye is the best and, thus, the most dangerous.

Each day and each night they lock him in a cage and chain his neck to the rock that serves as wall #4. For food he eats a half-spoonful of gruel ladled into a wooden bowl. One Eye’s lone form of exercise is a daily fight to the death with other prisoners.

It’s hard to imagine what would sustain a man enduring daily kill fights. One Eye endures days by seeing the future. Throughout the film he dreams, in blood-red filters, of scenes both important and not that often come true a few days later.

One of those blood red future sights I was talking about
One of those blood-red future sights I was talking about

Some characters believe he has another motive: hate. “He’s driven by hate,” says One Eye’s owner. “It’s why never loses.” That guy probably has it right, because later he will end up with his head on a spear.

One Eye uses luck and ingenuity to free himself from the round-the-clock neck tie situation and kill his captors. One of his dreams places him in a watering hole. Suffering and dignified, he dips below the surface to find an arrowhead, which he secrets into his mouth.

Later, One Eye is transferred from one clan leader to another. These are the days before Con Air flew the world’s most dangerous criminals above the land, so the Vikings do it the old fashioned way: on a footpath.

Wearing a hood, One Eye steps slowly. He slips out the arrowhead from his mouth and slices through the rope wrapped around his neck. The rope is attached to two poles carried by men in front and behind him.

Here comes some acting skill. One Eye lets the rope and attached pole fall. Still walking, he takes off the sack around his head and steps to the man in front, slicing his gut and neck. Mikkelsen plays these movements as if he were brushing away a falling leaf during an autumn stroll. His character is free for the first time in decades, for all we know, and he acts as if he’s planned this moment for years. Likely, he has.

After One Eye, free to roam the Earth, meets a group of Christians, he lets events unfold as they may. There’s a long period wasting away on a small Viking boat as they float toward what they believe will be the Holy Land.

Instead of the Holy Land they find the New World. The Christians believe One Eye has taken them to Hell. One Eye lets them believe that, knowing what will come. He bides his time, and when the men turn on him, he is ready.

One Eye kills his companions like they were invading pests. These are men with whom he suffered across an ocean. They die just as easily as the prisoners in the sport killing.

It is One Eye’s final act that deserves more discussion. That follows.

Villain (5/10)

The Christians who adopt One Eye as a traveling companion do so because they need warriors to fight for God. When they meet One Eye, they know him by reputation.

The Christians’ leader beckons his son to fight One Eye. The son steps forward, takes a long look at ax-wielding One Eye, and is like, “Nah, Dad.” The father doesn’t dispute his son’s findings and doesn’t press the issue.

Next thing they know, they’re on a boat drifting toward the Holy Land to fight for Jesus’s kingdom.

The Christian chief is in a unique role. He does not know he is the primary villain. He protects One Eye on the boat. When the men want to throw the boy overboard, One Eye protects him by axing an attacker to death. The chief tells another wannabe attacker, “I warned you what would happen.” One Eye looks at them as if to say, “I’m wide awake now, bitches.”

That was nice. Once they reach the New World, the chief is in full proselytizing mode. He’s ready to found a New Jerusalem and show the natives what man of God looks like.

The chief, left, and the priest, right
The chief, left, and the priest, right

Late in the film, the chief forces?, asks? everyone to drink a psychotropic brew. The Christians start fighting each other and themselves. I don’t know why he had them drink this. Perhaps they were meant to come closer to God through hallucination. Some of them grew closer to God because they died.

The priest wants to follow One Eye through the wilderness. The chief brings him in for a manly hug. Then he stabs him in the side while hugging. A more cowardly stabbing I cannot fathom.

In the end, the chief shows his true colors and dillusions. He and Hauk, a man covered in brown mud and runes, will found a their “New Jerusalem”. They await the ships that will surely, surely follow them to the New World. I can see them now…

Action/Effects (4/10)

If you came to Valhalla Rising seeking big sword fights and set piece battles, you went away disappointed. Refn’s film is less about action than about symbolism.

Let me now refute that last paragraph. One Eye is a man of savage brutality, driven by hate to kill, and seemingly with no other goals or desires.

One Eye begins the film in a cage, but soon he’s out of it and fighting. For sport. A local chieftain owns One Eye and sends him to fight death matches with prisoners of other clans for cash prizes.

Near the prison is a mud circle, made muddy from the gallons of blood spilled there mixed with rain, sweat, spit, and tears. The men fight shirtless, and most fight unrestrained.

Not One Eye. He spends his entire life with a rope around his neck, and on fight days this rope is tied to a pole in the center of the mud field. Most fights are one-on-one, but One Eye, in his first match on screen, is forced to fight two men.

One Eye runs toward the first man. He doesn’t notice the second one behind him until that man has yanked One Eye’s rope. The first guy kicks One Eye’s stomach at the same moment.

As One Eye struggle to his feet, the first guy spear tackles him. They huff and puff in the cold and with the labor. One Eye easily whips a leg over the man to gain leverage.

One Eye plunges his teeth into the man’s shoulder and grips hard, even as the second man gut punches him. One Eye is patient, waiting to finish the job. He rope-a-dopes the second guy, letting him punch himself tired, and then One Eye whips his head backward to rend the flesh of the first guy and head butt the second guy in one strike. That’s economy of motion, right there.

After spitting out the flesh and blood, One Eye again head butts the other guy. Both opponents are down, one is out, and the other is about to be. One Eye wraps his restraining cord around the man’s neck. The camera pulls back to offer the scene in a wide shot. One Eye runs away with the rope, pulling it taut and snapping the other man’s neck.

'bout to snap dude's neck
’bout to snap dude’s neck

Fight over, One Eye places his hands together for rebinding and returns to his cage.

No fight scene lasts longer than that one, and it’s there to show One Eye’s savage effectiveness. He has a signature move that I’ll discuss in the stunts section, but let’s say that it’s swift, unexpected, and effective.

In a later fight, shown just for fun, I guess, One Eye smashes an opponent’s skull with a rock. We get to see his brains. Yum.

Valhalla Rising isn’t meant to drench its actors in gore. They bathe in eerie light instead. Sometimes that’s great; it makes the fight scenes stand out more, just what we get in this movie.

Sidekicks (3/8)

One Eye does not speak. So he needs a mouthpiece. The shaggy blond-haired son of One Eye’s original owner serves as that mouthpiece.

From the beginning, Boy (Maarten Stevenson) studies One Eye rather than fears him. Boy carries buckets of sloshy soup through the hills to feed the prisoners, but One Eye holds the most interest.

Boy traces the scars on One Eye’s back and slaps black paint on him. He’s the only person who enters One Eye’s wood prison. He helps rechain One Eye to the rock, but he’s not killed doing it.

Boy
Boy

After One Eye frees himself, sparing only Boy, Boy follows One Eye for some time. He keeps his distance, 30 yards or so, and One Eye allows him to keep pace by looking back to give assent.

One Eye knows Boy has a grasp on the workings of the outer world, something he’ll need to survive. Boy knows who the Christians are when they are first spotted. He also speaks for One Eye.

The Christians ask him his name. Boy says he is called One Eye. Later, he tells One Eye that he needed a name, and he’s only got one eye. Making sense, this kid is.

The Christians try to learn some background on the pair. They ask One Eye what he wants. “I want to go home,” Boy says. But is he speaking for One Eye or himself? Hard to say. Also, Boy says, he doesn’t know where his home is. The Boy’s father is dead, by One Eye’s hand, so he might mean himself. He might also mean One Eye, because, he says, One Eye “was brought up from hell.”

Boy disappears for most of the remainder of the film, taking a backseat to the Christians. Strangely, some Christians are convinced that Boy is the cause of their suffering, not the demon-like warrior “brought up from hell.” They try to kill Boy until One Eye makes a quick end to that.

Only at the very end does Boy make another important appearance.

Stevenson’s chief attribute in this role was his Scandinavian appearance. His hair was long, lightly colored, and unkempt, and a better physical description of Vikings I can’t think of.

Henchmen (3/8)

The Chief is the villain and in charge of the small Christian contingent heading to the Holy Land. He’s got some folks backing him up.

The priest is first to try to sway One Eye to their cause. He tells One Eye of his sins and souls and Jesus and that stuff. He strikes me as a practical man, the one least likely to fall under the spell of superstition. He wants to follow One Eye in the New World, not stay with the chief and pretend that they will found a new kingdom of God there.

The shaved head guy is the opposite, most likely to fall under superstition. He’s convinced that Boy is the source of their troubles, that he’s cursed their mission or they’ve been cursed because of him. He dies for his beliefs.

The other Christian of consequence is Hauk. This man flees the group after landing in the New World, leaving only his sword behind. He returns later to taunt the group and pretend he can hear what One Eye thinks. He returns orange. That’s about all he offers.

These men were important to the plot and well developed for how briefly they appeared. I would have liked more.

Stunts (3/6)

Two other fight scenes allow us more insight into our hero. The first comes during One Eye’s freeing. As he’s led to another clan, One Eye uses a found arrowhead to cut away the rope wrapped around his neck. He removes the sack covering his head and attacks.

The man in front, carrying one of the two restraining poles, is first to die. Before he knows what’s happened, the arrowhead has cut his torso. As the man slinks down, One Eye finishes the job by slicing his throat. Blood sprays.

The other guards become aware of One Eye’s escape after it’s too late. One Eye takes the ax of the man he’s just killed and faces down the remaining captors.

The men opposing him stand in a single file line, negating their numerical advantage. I don’t know if One Eye planned for this, but it wouldn’t surprise me if he had.

One Eye lunges toward the next man, rolling on the ground and striking his foot with the ax. No one saw that coming, a move divinely inspired. The wounded guard falls to his knees, and One Eye puts the ax in his back and then face.

The next man runs away. A slight rain falls as One Eye considers whom to kill next. A final guard faces him down. Also, Boy is hiding behind rocks.

Next scene, and One Eye has chained the last guard to the rock. This guy taunts One Eye a little bit, telling him he’ll see him in hell. One Eye responds by cutting his stomach open and pulling out his guts.

Near the end, One Eye uses his signature leap again to gain the upper hand. Not much of a difficult stunt, but a great way to surprise an opponent and difficult to guard against.

Climax (4/6)

Things really go downhill for the Christians after they drink their psychotropic *** liquor. Guys go crazy in their own ways. The man with the shaved head wanders around. The chief stabs the Earth, presumably for God. His son stares at his reflection in the water.

One Eye is the only person into constructive activities. He builds a cairn on a minuscule island in the river’s edge. It’s about the only thing he’s done in Valhalla Rising besides kill and walk.

Maybe the first ever hippie rock cairn
Maybe the first ever hippie rock cairn

Electric guitars riff nightmarishly over the wordless scene. A wooden cross the men have built stands sentinel, very much as did the monolith in 2001. Then the shaved head guy kills one of his colleagues. Any time that happens, there’s going to be dissent.

Hauk, the man who ran away as soon as the Christians disembarked in the New World, returns. Caked in brown mud and covered with runes, his blue eyes appear icy. He claims he can hear One Eye’s thoughts, and that he’s thinking they are in hell. Anyone could have told you that, Hauk. Try watching your own movie.

Helpful chapter headings
Helpful chapter headings

The chief wants to show them what Christians are capable of. “We raised the cross,” he says. “Now we bring the sword.”

One Eye is not really into that. Boy says they have to go through the forest, though he offers no reasons why. The shaved head Christian breaks down. “One Eye took us to hell,” he says. “And there is no God.”

Shaved head comes at One Eye, who has never let his ax stray from his hand, like Linus and his comfort blanket. One Eye leaps toward him and chops his foot. He has a knife, too, and slices shaved head’s neck with it.

One Eye throws blades at two other men, striking both in the chest. He straddles shaved head and raises the ax. The chief shouts, “NO.” One Eye acts like he didn’t hear as he brings the ax down on the most recent man to oppose him.

One Eye takes his weapons and walks into the forest. Boy goes with him. “We need to follow him,” the priest says to the chief. That surprised me, and it surprised me more that the chief embraces the priest. Then the chief draws a knife and jabs it into his friend’s side. “Only men of faith deserve the riches of my New Jerusalem.”

In Part VI: The Sacrifice, the chief discusses the future with Hauk. He will line the river with crosses to guide the Christians bound to follow. “They’ll bring women.” Cities will stand for a thousand years. Hauk, crumpled on his knees and covered in orange mud, will be the chief’s spiritual advisor. It’s insane, and Hauk, the orange one, laughs.

Pretty soon after that the chief is shot dead wading in a pond. Outliving the chief is the man he stabbed and his son. Both follow One Eye through the forest.

Together they walk for miles, climbing a steep hill and finding a treeless expanse that resembles their home. One Eye even carries Boy on his shoulders.

The men and boy meet atop the hill. The son will return to his father, hoping to forgive him for bringing him to this hell they’ve stepped into. The priest seeks forgiveness from his son who died in battle long ago. One Eye wants to build a new ship to go home. Thing is, he has no home, right Boy? Didn’t you tell us that earlier?

The men who speak depart, one for his father and the other for the afterlife. One Eye leads Boy to the coast. He grips the ax.

They look across the sea, imagining their Old World home. When they turn back, a dozen orange warriors block their way. Having already killed two of the Europeans, we know what this appearance means.

The natives come for the finishing blow
The natives come for the finishing blow

One Eye, in his most expressive gesture yet, grips Boy’s arm. He walks toward the natives as he drops his weapons and lets them surround him. They beat him to death.

A blue sky. Blue water. A blue filter shows Boy looking at the sea again. Fade to the Old World’s hills. Sure is misty. In the final scene, a disembodied image of One Eye’s face appears. This time, his right eye is also closed. He’s No Eyes.

Jokes (0/4)

I don’t think I laughed once watching Valhalla Rising. I don’t think I cracked a smile. Humor has little place in One Eye’s world.

The funniest scene occurs shortly after One Eye meets the Christians. The priest, an old but not aged man, explains some of the tenets of the new religion.

“We are more than flesh and blood, more than revenge,” he says.”You should consider your soul. That’s where the real pain lies.” One Eye turns to him and gives him a look as if to say, “You do not know the smallest drop about pain.” Maybe I’m adding too much malice into One Eye’s expression, but it’s the kind of thing I would expect One Eye to say, if he spoke.

That’s it. Sometimes movie violence reaches such heights it becomes mockable. Refn and company avoid this, using blunt force trauma of the imagery and the score’s dreadful strings and horns to nullify any humor. Comedy would have been out of place in Valhalla Rising.

Setting (4/4)

Filmed in Scotland, Valhalla Rising‘s best character might be its landscape. One Eye is imprisoned atop a grassy hill in the highlands. You won’t see a tree for about an hour, but you will see countless grass blades.

Barren and alluring, the land of these Vikings perfectly reflects the film’s aesthetic statements. A protagonist who doesn’t speak a word could survive and thrive amongst treeless hillocks. There’s a lot going on, but only if you look closely.

Mists shroud the hills from time to time, giving the land and endless quality magnified by its floral monotony.

The mists extend to the ocean. Part III: Men of God, takes place on a small boat large enough to hold a dozen men and nothing else.

The Men of God seek passage to the Holy Land, but all they get is a sea with no current and no wind. For days, at least (could be weeks or months), the boat drifts, rocks, sways, but never sails.

The men suffer quietly, mostly, for this time. A mist surrounds the ship for its entire voyage. Few have ever seen such mists so far from shore. Might they be cursed?

Floating to the Holy Land
Floating to the Holy Land

The camera does a 360 on the boat, capturing men who might be dead or might be asleep. Only the sun’s dull orange or the moon’s dull blue denote days and nights.

I enjoyed this section the most. A later section is simply titled: Hell, but for me the boat part was worse. We never see the men eat. Only once does a man try to drink seawater.

In one scene a man dies, and as he’s thrown overboard his body does not make a sound when it hits the water. We still hear the creaking of the boat. Again, it’s as if nothing exists outside the boat.

Eerie, echoing horns bellow like whales. The lighting, sounds, and colors make the boat seem like the only thing in existence. A few films have portrayed a descent into Hell, but I’ve not seen it done better than on the boat in Valhalla Rising.

And yet, hell comes to an end in the New World. The “Holy Land” has conifers, rivers, and estuaries, unlike the desert wasteland they expected.

The Christians seem as surprised as One Eye does not. Nothing under the sun, it seems, is new to him.

The men leave the boat and wander along the dense forests near the shore. Birds twitter. Green is everywhere. It’s a beautiful place. So beautiful, that the Christians go insane.

Some characters want to go home, some want to kill One Eye, some want to build a New Jerusalem. Whatever they want they won’t get, because this is still the land of its natives.

Commentary (2/2)

In Norse mythology, Odin is the god of wisdom, war, poetry, and about everything else. He’s as near an omnipotent god as northern Europeans were willing to create. He also has one eye.

If having one eye rings familiar to you, it’s because you’ve read about a character named One Eye for the last half hour. Is One Eye meant to be Odin, descending from Valhalla to check on his flock?

I don’t know, but I like thinking about it.

Offensiveness (0/-2)

Valhalla Rising shows us the transition times, when northern Europe cast off its paganism for the One True God. The man who owns One Eye in the beginning is a pagan. He has reservations about the “bastards” following the so-called White Christ. “They eat their own god,” he says derisively. “We have many gods. They’ve only got the one.”

True, but they are passionate about Him. One Eye soon meets a group mourning their dead amongst mounds of dirt with crosses atop them. They need warriors like One Eye to help them reclaim the Holy Land from those heathen Moslems.

One man tells One Eye that there will be “great honor, riches, land” in taking Jerusalem. The priest offers to absolve One Eye’s sins and tells him that real pain lies in the soul.

In the New World we see what the chief and the film’s most fervent Christian believes. He’s committed to God’s Plan and his prominent role in it. He wants glory, riches, and women, but he doesn’t know it.

In one scene, the chief wades ashore with the other Christians bearing his sword hilt like a cross. “I’m going to show them a man of God has arrived,” he says. Soon after that he says he’s ready to claim the land in the name of God.

If that sounds like arrogance and gross misunderstanding of facts to you, then you are paying attention.

The Christians did eventually take control of the New World. It took another five centuries for the next boatload to land there and a few more centuries before they finished the job, but the chief was on to something.

Others

  • After freeing himself, One Eye takes a cracked leather jacket to wear for the remainder of the movie. He’s the first person to make a leather jacket cool.
  • In another possible first, One Eye builds a cairn during the scene where they go crazy. Was he the first tourist to build a cairn to connect with the Earth or whatever reason people do that? Maybe.
  • (1) The dreadful soundtrack was the perfect accompaniment to this film. Valhalla Rising felt like one long descent into hell, and that’s how the low-toned strings, scratchy guitars, and thumping drum beats sounded.

Summary (37/68): 54%

One of the longest short films I can remember, Valhalla Rising is a visual joy told in six parts. Mads Mikkelsen delights as the sombre, silent Odin, I mean One Eye.

I can’t say that I loved this film. It’s hard to. It drifts along like the boat between two continents. It’s every bit as violent as it is pretty. If you can last to the end, you might not feel better about yourself, but you won’t forget it.