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Review: Valhalla Rising (2010)

Valhalla Rising (2010)

Directed by: Nicolas Winding Refn

Premise: A group of Vikings arrive in North America and do battle with the indigenous warriors.

What Works: Director Nicolas Winding Refn established himself with his 2009 film Bronson and more recently he made a splash with the critical success of his 2011 feature Drive. In between those pictures, Refn made Valhalla Rising. If Refn was channeling Stanley Kubrick (a la A Clockwork Orange) when he made Bronson and paid tribute to Martin Scorsese in Drive, it would seem that Valhalla Rising is Refn’s version of a Lars von Trier picture. Like von Trier’s recent films, Valhalla Rising is dark to the point of nihilism, includes highly stylized images, and does not use much dialogue. Refn’s film is distinguished in its own right; the director is gradually cultivating his own style and his films so far have been very violent but in very different ways. Bronson’s fight scenes were cartoonish to complement the absurdity of the story and Drive’s bursts of gore intentionally upset the almost sterile quality of the rest of the film. The violence in Valhalla Rising is considerable, with body parts mangled by primitive weapons, but the gore is presented much more naturally than in Bronson or Drive. A lot of the fights play out with the only flourishes being the use of slow motion or cross cutting the violence with meditative imagery. This is done very effectively and despite its barbarity the film is quite beautiful. Something important to note here is a distinction between a director like Nicolas Winding Refn and director like Zack Snyder. Both of these filmmakers know how to create visually arresting motion pictures, but Refn’s use of violence and slow motion is clearly in service to ideas and story elements and that makes him the far superior filmmaker. Valhalla Rising is a story about warriors and how warriors stand on the nexus between society and nature. In that respect, the other influence in Valhalla Rising is Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. Like Coppola’s film, Valhalla Rising stands on the border between art house cinema and Hollywood spectacle and both pictures tell a Heart of Darkness-like story. In Valhalla Rising this storyline comes to an end that on the surface will seem nihilistic but it is so artfully done that the climax is cinematic poetry.

What Doesn’t: There has been a small but interesting trend of low budget sword and shield films released in the past few years that include Black Death and Ironclad. While Valhalla Rising is a part of this trend and even shares a lot of the dominant themes and images of those films, this is not a sword picture in the straightforward or traditional filmmaking style of films like Gladiator. Although Valhalla Rising is not as avant garde as Bronson, it is a slow and meditative film and viewers should go into this picture knowing that it is less like 300 and more like The New World. Valhalla Rising isn’t without its flaws. Some of the character work could be stronger and the ideas drawn out further, especially the expedition leader’s obsession with creating a new Jerusalem and the relationship between the warrior and a young boy.

DVD extras: Commentary track, trailer and a featurette.

Bottom Line: Valhalla Rising is not a film for everyone but it is a bold piece of filmmaking. This is the kind of picture that is likely to polarize the audience but for viewers who enjoy Nicolas Winding Refn’s other pictures or films like The Grey and The New World, this is a must see.

Episode: #376 (February 19, 2012)