February 10, 2011

Valhalla Rising: Visual Poetry

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“In the beginning there was man and nature,” reads the opening title, “and at the fringes of the earth, there was a reckoning.” Evidently, we’re not in Kansas anymore. Valhalla Rising is a film at once visceral and cerebral; a work of art so ferociously original as to sever us, of necessity, from the very conventions of interpretation: both the instinct to historicize and the desire to assimilate it into our own self-awareness. Director Nicolas Winding Refn is acclaimed in his native Denmark for the gritty gangland saga Pusher and internationally for Bronson, the Dali-esque psychodrama about Britain’s most violent prison inmate. In Valhalla Rising, he presents his vision of a force of violence and chaos beyond man’s understanding and his creation radiates with all the power of myth.   We are told that the film takes place in 1000 AD, somewhere, we assume, in Scandanavia. The first scene is silent, except for a savage wind sweeping over a brooding highland wilderness, and still, save for a young boy trudging towards the encampment where a tribe of pagan warriors seems to be taking dubious refuge from what we will later realize is the expansion of Christian civilization. The boy is bringing food for a nameless, mute man kept half naked in a cage. We learn that this man, played by Mads Mikkelsen (Le Chiffre, Casino Royale), is enslaved to fight other such prisoners with his bare hands in ritualistic battles to the death. What any of this signifies is ambiguous: you can only intuit a sense of the inhuman looming over this degradation and brutality. The camera is constantly exploring the man, his features carved as if from the rock of the merciless landscape, one eye missing, the eyelid closed to the world and his open one surveying it with an alien harshness. We wonder if the surrealistic images, visions of his inner eye, which periodically flash across a screen saturated with blood-red chromatography, are hallucinations or prophecies. One such vision prognosticates his discovery of an arrowhead at the bottom of a pool of water that he bathes in days later. He uses the arrowhead to free himself and then proceeds to massacre the entire tribe except for the boy, who follows him at a distance as he wanders through the hostile wilderness. The man and the boy encounter another tribe who claim to be Christians on an expedition “to reconquer the holy land.” The boy introduces the mute as One-Eye and the two set sail with them on their quest, from what seems to be either metaphysical inevitability, or the lack of anything better to do — or perhaps both. What happens on this journey is a descent into madness so violent and so harrowing as to make Apocalypse Now look like Eat, Pray, Love; so strange, disturbing and deliriously suggestive as to make Heart of Darkness feel like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. When the ship emerges from the fog and the group makes landfall, prepare to be kicked loose of every expectation to which you might still cling about where this film will take you. So foreign is the nightmare into which you will set foot, that you cannot know what order of reality, what level of hell you have entered. It becomes progressively more unclear whether One-Eye is a God, an alien or the prophet of our destruction. Acknowledge that this character, who does not speak and only has one eye, exerts in the pounding of your heart, the churning of your gut, the convulsions of your mind — it is a testament to Mads Mikkelsen’s virtuosity as an actor and the resounding success of this performance. The script is probably less than ten pages long, and deliberately eludes narrative of any sort, but the images captured by the magnificent cinematography — of nature, naked and terrible, of the nightmares man’s mind makes for self and Other, will sear themselves into you. The score, slipping into consciousness as from a dream, will echo in your ears for days and months. Allow Valhalla Rising to go to work on you. Your reaction towards this film will be determined by the extent to which you allow it, as a form of visual poetry, to entwine you in its danse macabre, to address you on its terms, and not yours. If you let it, the experience of watching Valhalla Rising will bring you to the very threshold of what film as an art form can do. It is impossible to be indifferent towards this film: you will either understand it or despise it. The major film distributors on this side of the Atlantic do not want to take this chance: this film has not been theatrically released in North America and unlike the Hollywood blockbusters which glut the market, it will probably never reach a popular audience, for understandable reasons. Hollywood simply lacks the respect for the art form necessary to pose this sort of a challenge to the intelligent viewers’ powers of interpretation. Winding-Refn, however, has far too much to spoon-feed.Valhalla Rising is available for purchase or rental on itunes, and can also be found on Netflix, and IFC on demand. Additionally, this reviewer also strongly encourages his readers to request this film from Cornell Cinema.

Original Author: Aron Zaltz