Valhalla Rising

Valhalla Rising

Visually Impeccable – Vahalla Rising

 

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

Here Be Vikings!

Vikings

Earlier this month Vikings careened onto our screens, setting the precedent with a gory, hacking introductory scene that said little for the plot but much about the tone of the show. Cue a brooding introduction with abrupt flashes of fire, gore and crows. This show looks to be promising and on the high-end of the production budget! Adverts made the show look somewhat trashier than the initial five minutes suggest, and whilst my fears weren’t completely allayed, the show certainly seemed to be going for refined cinematography and hinting at subtexts to its violent façade already.

Overall, the show is unbelievably entertaining, thanks to some quite fast pacing. We are introduced to Ragnar Lothbrok and his plans to sail west despite the unfalteringly villainous Earl Haraldson’s demands, and by the end of the first episode he’s already sailing off on his newly constructed longboat. The show accelerates from this point on, occasionally jumping periods of months between episodes, at other times picking up immediately where the last left off. This can sometimes give a disjointed feel to the show, but ultimately prevents the show from ever dragging.

Another surprisingly pleasing thing about the pacing is that it isn’t really done episodically. What I mean by this is that over the nine episodes of the show, the impression we receive is of a timeline of important events with the episode breaks falling every 45 minutes regardless of what has occurred. Some (in fact, most) of the grand climaxes of the show happen towards the beginning or even the middle of episodes, and at times they end on a sombre note rather than an enticing cliffhanger. This makes for a refreshing break from our viewing conventions and keeps us constantly on edge once we come to realise this.

The fast-pace rollicking ride that ensues, whilst thoroughly entertaining, does lead to some downfalls. Mainly that characters are not particularly well-developed and some of the scenes seem very simple, in that there is little subtext / subtle tensions between the characters. Many of the scenes in the earl’s hall are quite flat conversions designed purely to move the plot from A to B, without really fleshing out the psychology of characters. Earl Haraldson demonstrates this the most, since he is pretty much set up as the epitome of villainy (hey look, it’s yet another scene where he kills a child!) and this can get either boring or grating quite quickly.

Overall however, Vikings is an extremely entertaining show, and definitely made me want to wait for the second season. Especially since some of the mystical undertones to the plot look like they shall be taking centre-stage in future. Some have started to liken the show to Game of Thrones, but this is misplaced. The story and characterisation look downright bare in comparison, so best not to judge it in the shadow of that HBO giant. Nevertheless, if you come to Vikings expecting a well-produced, fast-paced, plot-driven romp, it will deliver on every count.