The magnetic, heavily tattooed Mads Mikkelsen smolders in this Viking epic set in 11th century Scandinavia, playing a slave called “One Eye” due to the severe wound across his face. He leads a revolt against the men who have imprisoned him and unites with Eirik, as well as several religious fanatics who spread the Lord’s word.
Once free of his captors, things don’t get any easier for One Eye. As he heads for the Holy Land and Jerusalem with Eirik and his crew, they suffer from starvation, infighting, and attacks off the coast. Only greater hostility and carnage await One Eye in this incredibly moody, and visually stunning epic. It’s a slow burn, but an intriguing one with lots to take in.
Review from Slant Magazine
Nicolas Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising is ostensibly about a one-eyed, mute Scandinavian gladiator who, after slaying the master who enslaved him like a battered pit bull, joins a bunch of Viking Christian zealots on their way to take over Jerusalem. But, in fact, this Bruckheimer-grade storyline is merely an excuse to film a Joseph Conrad-worthy existential journey to hell. It’s an intriguing artistic choice from the director best known for the narrative-driven Pusher trilogy and the borderline avant-garde Bronson. With Valhalla Rising, Refn has pared his vision down to its atmospheric essence, creating a universe that’s closer in spirit to 2001: A Space Odyssey than the bible blockbusters of yore.
And the Kubrick comparisons doesn’t end there. With a haunting soundscape redolent of The Shining and divided into parts with names like “Silent Warrior,” “Hell,” and “The Sacrifice” boldly announced through title cards, the film is mostly wordless. When the first line of dialogue is spoken (“He never belonged to anyone for more than five years”), it’s almost jarring. Through painstakingly composed images, rendered in different levels of saturation, that place an emphasis on primary colors (heavy reds for flash-forwards, a mountain scene awash in blue lighting, yellow used for a fog-drenched boat), Refn summons primal energies.
None of which upstages the performance of Refn’s muse, Mads Mikkelsen, who plays the grizzly fighting machine One Eye with all the cold menace befitting a character not averse to squishing skulls or ripping out an adversary’s insides while he’s still alive. “He’s driven by hate,” a warrior explains of One Eye. Ya think? But then what does clunky dialogue matter in a film where the screenplay, by Refn and Roy Jacobsen, is completely irrelevant?
Though the combat scenes are truly gruesome, Mikkelsen is sublime, blessed with the same rugged charisma entwined with inner stillness as that of the star he most closely resembles, Danish-American Viggo Mortensen. Looking like Mad Max, the leather-clad Mikkelsen is easily able to pull off the gruesome to spiritual transition that occurs once the film reaches “The Holy Land” chapter and practically turns into Terence Malick’s The New World. From Pusher to Valhalla Rising, Mikkelsen just gets deeper and sexier with every role, possessing the same distilled intensity as Refn’s style. It’s a match made in heaven, and even in hell.