2001: A Space Odyssey, 2009, Alexander Morton, allegory, Drive, Ewan Stewart, Gary Lewis, Hell, history, Jamie Sives, journey, Maarten Stevenson, Mads Mikkelsen, Nicholas Winding Refn, odyssey, Roy Jacobsen, Stanley Kubrick, stylish, The Shining, Valhalla Rising, viking, violence
Written by: Nicholas Winding Refn and Roy Jacobsen
Directed by: Nicholas Winding Refn
Starring: Mads Mikkelsen, Maarten Stevenson, Ewan Stewart, Gary Lewis, Alexander Morton, Jamie Sives,
Strange is the heavily metaphorical journey that is the paper-thin plot of Nicholas Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising, stranger still are its ties to the films of Stanley Kubrick. The film tells the six-part tale of a tattooed, mute Norse warrior called One-Eye (Mads Mikkelsen) who is being held captive by a group of travellers of some sort of nomadic group who force him to fight to the death with other prisoners. The fights seems pointless beyond providing entertainment, though it can be assumed that One-Eye and the others are prisoners from a previous conquest. One-Eye is silent always and it is when he fights that we first learn he’s special; tethered by a collar to a post, he’s forced to fight two other completely un-chained men who he destroys (destroys.) with incredible, ruthless efficiency. While he is resting in his cage after the fight, we see the first of many visions One-Eye will have throughout the film. Washed in absolute red, we see a scene of him bathing in a river as his captors watch from shore. Soon after, in his waking life, One-Eye finds himself bathing in the same river where he finds a tiny arrow head which he will use to murder his captors and escape with his freedom. So One-Eye, with the sight of Tiresias and a supernatural stregth, sets out across a remarkably barren landscape where he and the child he did not kill (Maarten Stevenson) stumble across a band of Crusaders who give them the option to join them or die so One-Eye and the Boy join the Crusaders. On the way to Jerusalem, their ship gets lost in a heavy fog, which drives the travelers to near-madness and when they reach land and realize it’s not Jerusalem, and assume they’ve entered Hell.
The film is nearly wordless throughout, with dialogue springing up only when it’s absolutely necessary, and when the first notes of an almost-non-existent score strike, we realize that for more than twenty minutes the film’s action has been accompanied by only the howling of the wind. Refn has pared this film down to it’s abolute, minimal essence which puts to mind his 2011 film Drive (of course, Drive should remind me of Valhalla Rising in this respect but I am approaching Refn’s films with chronological anarchy). No music, no dialogue, barely any plot, no names; this film about corruption and evil is being constructed out of negative space. Refn reiterates this point visually, by frequently placing his characters in a sliver of the screen and surrounding them with impenetrable, suffocating fog. From this nothingness grows evil, blackness like a disease. From the captors who make their prisoners kill each other for pleasure, to the Crusaders who kill anyone who won’t accept their God, the humans in Valhalla Rising are nothing but absolute evil. So where, then, do One-Eye and the Boy stand in this? If we take One-Eye as a god of vengeance, then the Boy, who names him and takes on his voice, is his prophet. Of course, the scale of One-Eye’s ruthlessness is staggering and what seems at first to be a tongue-in-cheek indictment of Western culture is somewhat confused by the film’s bleak ending.
So where do the films of Stanley Kubrick fit in all this? With long, silent stretches of heavily stylized action, combining stillness with incredible violence and cryptic visions, the clearest line to draw here is between 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), as both films show the bleak self-destruction of the human race against a backdrop of emptiness. Like Kubrick’s The Shining(1980) Refn uses titlecards to sectionalize the film and chart its characters descent into supernatural evil and paranoia. Refn is nodding to a thematically kindred spirit, and paying homage to an idol, it would seem. Panning shots of specifically composed scenes are particularly haunting, and with One-Eye’s visions Refn succeeds in creating an emotionally disorienting effect. Visually impressive and full of creatively gorey set pieces, harsh landscapes, brutal violence, and with the darkest elements of human nature as its subject matter, Valhalla Rising is an emphatically dark film.