BLU-RAY Valhalla Rising
Nicolas Winding Refn, Danish director of the acclaimed Pusher trilogy, followed up his avant garde biopic Bronson with this divisive journey into the darkness of the human soul.
A nameless Norse warrior is imprisoned by a highland clan. Forced to battle to the death with their fiercest captives, he survives and suffers in silence. He is befriended by a young boy named Are, who nicknames him One Eye, brings him food and keeps him company.
One Eye begins to have prophetic dreams that lead him towards a means of escape, which he takes, slaughtering his captors and unwillingly taking Are as his companion.
One Eye and Are soon come across a band of crusaders on their way to Jerusalem, who convince One Eye to take up their quest and cleanse his tainted soul.
The group embark on a hellish journey across unknown waters, leading to a mysterious land mass that will ultimately decide the fate of them all…
Director Winding Refn’s first foray into western cinema (after the gritty and brilliant Pusher trilogy established his clout) was the oddball biopic Bronson, a film which embraced the theatricality of its subject to such an extent that it baffled audiences expecting a warts and all tribute to one of Britain’s most notorious hard men. Abstract, beautiful and more than a little pretentious, Bronson was a frustrating but solid work from a promising filmmaker. Winding Refn’s sophomore English language film is even more impenetrable than the story of Charles Bronson, yet it remains a thought provoking experience nonetheless.
The story recalls Apocalypse Now, with its disparate group of crusaders journeying towards some kind of salvation/destruction at the hands of an unknown enemy. Whether or not the enemy in question is themselves is one of many interpretations that can be gleaned from Winding Refn and Roy Jacobsen’s screenplay, which breaks events down into chapters, each of which signify a tonal shift of character and story.
The film is essentially a mood piece, as stubbornly mute as its central protagonist, and replete with extended sequences that don’t seem to be going anywhere. Primal scenes of bone crunching violence suggest that the film will live up to its woefully misguided marketing (which painted it as a Gladiator-lite historical epic), but then begins an almost unbearably long boat journey which pushes the plot into the realm of spiritual horror, only for it to turn back on itself and become a Deliverance style treatise on man vs. nature. It’s all very po-faced and the pretence sometimes jars, but it’s a testament to Winding Refn’s direction that it’s hard not to become completely engrossed in the film’s woozy dream sequences and sporadic sensory assaults. The film’s centrepiece is a drug fuelled orgy of sorts in which the crusaders each experience a unique form of madness. This sequence is, in many ways, a microcosm of the film as a whole – either pretentious and silly, or powerful and poetic, depending on one’s interpretation.
One Eye himself is a stubbornly vague presence. His role in proceedings is never made clear, his prophetic visions never explained, and his fate is frustratingly enigmatic. Yet despite his character having no obvious motivation or purpose, other than to push forward and look angry, Mads Mikkelsen manages to hold the film together.
From the visceral opening, in which he brutally dispatches a group of warriors, One Eye grabs our attention and never lets go. Mute protagonists are always a dicey proposition, but Mikkelsen exudes presence from the outset, acting as an anchor for anyone lost in the confusion of the film’s plot.
Aside from Mikkelsen, though, there isn’t much of an engaging presence to the rest of the cast, with only Maarten Stevenson managing to impress as One Eye’s young companion.
Morten Soborg shoots the rural Scottish locations like some eerie purgatory.
Cinematographer Morten Soborg emerges as the film’s other star, adding much needed visual substance to Winding Refn’s complex dreamscape. He shoots the rural Scottish locations like some eerie purgatory, devoid of sunlight and caked in mud. Elsewhere, he bathes the screen in bloody crimson, reflecting the perpetual anger of One Eye and foreshadowing the grisly end of the crusaders.
Soborg’s work shines on Blu-ray, with those muddy browns looking extra filthy in high-definition, and the mysterious island, which claims the crusaders, stands as an opulent counter palette. The sound mix benefits from the transfer also, with the industrial thrum of Peter Kyed’s score, in particular, bolstering the film’s powerful imagery.
So, is Winding Refn’s journey into the dark heart of the human soul muddled? Yes. Confusing? Absolutely! But it’s all tied together by some striking visuals and Mikkelsen, who manages to convey the agony of a life lived in violence through one good eye and the mother of all grimaces.
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