Nicholas Winding Refn drew a lot of attention to himself back in 2011 with Drive, and this August, his latest offering Only God Forgives hit the screens. His second film starring Ryan Gostling, it has garnered some divided opinion, most likely due to the fact that it isn’t Drive II, and that many aren’t aware of his trajectory as a director before Drive.
Like many others, Drive was my entry-point into the oeuvre of Winding Refn, but I didn’t want to go ahead and watch Only God Forgives without some grounding in his work as a whole. This is what after all, seemed to be a stumbling block towards appreciating it. So, my first pit-stop is Valhalla Rising, released two years prior to Drive, and renowned for its stunning visual style.
An opening shot of a bleak, craggy, Nordic landscape. A blonde boy with curly locks shoulders a bucket of water and trudges up a hill. There’s a lot of mist, there’s a lot of bearded men standing around ominously, and there’s Mads Mikkelsen (of recent Hannibal fame) chained up by his neck and being daubed in black paint. OK, the composition of the shots is kind of bleak but I can see the beauty…
And then, men start beating the shit out of one another, left, right and centre. Very brutally. The tone suddenly becomes one of pure aggression, as one slave’s brain is caved in and another is strangled in a highly-theatrical manner. We don’t know why Mads’ character ‘One-Eye’ has been captured, but he appears to be little more than a killing machine. It doesn’t help that he is completely mute; in fact, he doesn’t speak one line of dialogue in the entire film.
The key to ‘One-Eye’ is that he has prophetic visions. Many of these are tinted in a red glow that makes for some very unique shots, whilst others jolt onto the screen with abrupt sound effects that make you jump out of your skin. Considering the Nordic setting, this immediately sets up parallels with Oðin, who in Norse mythology has his eye gouged and is given the gift of prophecy.
In short, ‘One-Eye’ escapes his captors, murders them all brutally, and trudges off into the wilderness with the young boy. They meet a group of Christian Vikings, who are making a pilgrimage to the Holy Land to form a new Jerusalem. Upon joining this clan, they sail to a land of vastly different scenery; crags and bracken give way to rippling streams and forests.
But all is not what it seems in this beautiful promised land. As the Vikings start to get in touch with nature, giving in to Pagan impulses, they begin to distrust and ultimately, slaughter one another. Strange men caked in orange earth, covered in runic symbols start to emerge, and One-Eye trudges towards his destiny…
It is not hard to sum up this film in one paragraph as I’ve just done, as that is literally it; this is a film that is very light on traditional plot. In fact, it is painstakingly slow, giving you the impression that it is stretching 15 minutes worth of events into a feature film. It is also unbelievably unusual, if that wasn’t already obvious. Overall, this is one difficult film to even watch, let alone comprehend.
There is a lot to respect in Valhalla Rising, and I think ‘respect’ may be the key word here. It is not necessarily a good film, and it certainly isn’t enjoyable in a typical sense. What it does do however, is seem like exactly the film Nicholas Winding Refn wanted to make. It takes incredible license with convention, and meanders along unhurriedly with little concern for pacing.
Then there’s the content. If we try and pick it apart there are strong allegorical and mythological elements. But nothing is pointed to explicitly in the slightest. Does ‘One-Eye’ really represent the god Oðin? The Christian Vikings seem to represent a new order that would historically replace the Nords’ paganism, but the film’s message seems muddled here, as these crusaders end up being engulfed by forces of nature. Who are the captors we see at the beginning of the film, and why is ‘One-Eye’ castigated by them?
Endless, endless questions that we will never get an answer to. And that’s fine; art doesn’t owe anyone any explanations. But the symbolism in the film is just so obtuse, that I don’t even feel like I can offer a tenuous, highly-subjective interpretation of the plot.
And this is what makes Valhalla Rising a special film. It is immune to being pinned down and understood and this will inevitably frustrate many viewers. So here is my advice; just enjoy this film as a sensory experience. It has an incredible ambient soundtrack, it is astonishingly beautiful, and if you persist it will make you slow down to its languid pace.
This must certainly be Nicholas Winding Refn as his most abstract, so now I feel ready for Only God Forgives…