"I am going to show them that a man of God has arrived."
My fourth Nicolas Winding Refn film, Valhalla Rising, was as demanding as Only God Forgives in the sense that it has very little dialogue, but I enjoyed it much more. It has a very similar structure with extremely violent scenes and a lead character who doesn't utter one single word. The more films of Refn that I watch, the more convinced I am that he has a special fascination with violence. The way he exteriorizes it in his films is very different from most other directors. For example, Quentin Tarantino, another director who likes to depict violence in his films, has a completely different style where the characters are more carefully developed and always have a lot to say. Refn on the other hand doesn't care too much about developing his characters and we don't get much background about them, all we know is that they act on violent impulses. Refn always makes heavily stylized films that look gorgeous, and the Scottish mountain landscape is no exception here. The cinematography is truly breathtaking and there is something magnetic about Mads Mikkelsen's performance. The film begins with a lot of promise, although the pacing really slows down once the vikings show up. Still I was drawn to this character more than I was with Gosling in Only God Forgives. My first Refn film was Drive, which is more mainstream than the rest of his film, and I think having followed it up with Only God Forgives affected my appreciation of that film. Now that I am more familiar with his work I might be able to enjoy it more, but I can't pull myself together for a re-watch. I was convinced his films were more about style over substance, but now I'm beginning to appreciate what he does more and if you pay close attention you can come out of these films with some substance. He lets his audience interpret his work.
The film takes place somewhere around 1000 AD and we are quickly introduced to this mute warrior who they call One Eye (Mads Mikkelsen). He is a prisoner of a Chieftain (Alexander Morton) in the highlands where he is forced to fight to the death against other men. One Eye seems to have some sort of supernatural strength and also has visions of the future. A young boy (Maarten Stevenson) attends him bringing him food and water. One of the visions One Eye has allows him to find an arrowhead under the water which he eventually uses to escape. The young boy follows him and together they run into a group of Christian Vikings, who are on their way to Jerusalem. The leader of the group (Ewan Stewart) asks him to join them and convinces him that if he does he will be able to cleanse his soul and find peace. He agrees and together with the boy they embark on a vessel, but along the way they encounter an endless mist that doesn't allow them to know which direction they are headed. When the mist clears, they find themselves in a strange land with little possibilities of survival.
The film is divided in six chapters and each one is gorgeously shot. Refn always makes stylized films that are beautiful to look at, but when the violent scenes come you want to look away. The narrative isn't always easy to follow either considering there isn't much dialogue, but a lot is open to interpretation. There are also dream sequences that Refn paints in a deep colored red. It's deep and philosophical at times, so if you are expecting a heavy action film you will be disappointed because Refn takes his time to pace this movie and doesn't always explain what he's going for. The score in Valhalla Rising is a little more subtle than in his other films where a lot of electronic music is used. It's a difficult watch, but the images will stick with you.