Those familiar with Nicolas Winding Refn’s work from the Pusher films should already know that Valhalla Rising will rule. Like Pusher and it’s sequels, this is a movie that is capable of immersing the viewer in a realistically dangerous landscape. In fact, after visiting the Pusher world one may want to take a shower. But here the feeling is more like personally discovering a runic tablet at the bottom of a stream or lakebed, decipherable only to those willing to dive below the surface. Valhalla Rising is the often abstract tale of a one-eyed Viking warrior who comes to be called, er, One Eye (Mads Mikkelsen). He is a medieval Mike Tyson, an especially vicious, but captive, fighter making the rounds with a Scottish Pagan Viking cartel mud fight gambling circuit. These guys aren’t battling for titles and belts though. Every fight is to the death. One Eye is mute and has but one friend in the world, the son of his jailer (Maartin Stevenson), a kid who seems to be able to read the warrior’s thoughts and thereby serve as a translator. Given One Eye’s predilection to bad assness you know it is only a matter of time before he reaps bloody vengeance on his captors (a feat Tyson was never quite able to achieve). A small but harrowing saga commences where the warrior and the kid find themselves on a journey across the sea with a group of Christian converts, eventually landing in a place that could be Newfoundland.
From here onward, the film’s menace slowly shifts to include not just the brutality of men towards each other, but the indifference of nature itself. This dimension adds to the obvious similarities with Werner Herzog’s work: survival in primal nature means fighting through blood, guts, and starvation, not lying around an idyllic Eden. Romanticizing the natural world is common practice these days, but most of us have lost the capability of dealing with it’s challenges. These characters are not up against the pressure of office politics or computer crashes, but the epic pressure of surviving in the unknown.
And this, in a broad sense, is what Valhalla Rising represents: the desperate tactics of men faced with the unfamiliar. One Eye is a pawn to both the Christians and Pagans and he kills both without remorse, thereby becoming the opposite of the desperation that so often serves as catnip to religious fanatics. Unlike his counterparts, he desires neither land nor riches, and is unafraid of death: even the most badass among us are eventually faced with desperate and un-winnable situations. The way these situations are handled is what separates men from sheep. The often-overused plot points of revenge, disillusionment, and redemption are all at play here. But the strong acting, expansive cinematography, and palpable sense of mystery that pervade the film allow these themes to remain open to interpretation. Neither the viewer nor the characters can be certain what exactly to make of the journey’s mysterious destination. Is it hell? Is it purgatory? Is it Valhalla? Or is it simply Canada?