Within the first 10 minutes of Valhalla Rising, an acid-tinged Viking odyssey from Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn (the Pusher trilogy, Bronson), a mute, one-eyed warrior played by Mads Mikkelsen crushes one man’s skull with a rock, slashes another’s throat with an arrowhead, and forces a third to witness his own disembowelment. He acts out of self-preservation—these men have been holding him captive, and forcing him into a series of death-matches for their own edification—but he never acts out of passion, ideology, or easily definable motivation. There’s some vague speculation that he comes from across the ocean, perhaps Scandinavia, but his only friend, a slave boy (Maarten Stevenson) who serves as his voice, accounts for his roots more plausibly: “He’s from hell.”
Though it’s set in the Middle Ages and follows a band of Christian Vikings as they trudge off to fight in the Crusades, Valhalla Rising isn’t anything like a history lesson, and it eschews all but the most minimal requirements of character and plot. Hauntingly photographed in the craggy hills of Scotland, the film is more like a sustained, barbaric grunt, leading terrible men through a condemned landscape of their own making. Structured in six chapters with titles like “Wrath,” “Men Of God,” “The Holy Land,” and “Hell,” Valhalla Rising opens with Mikkelsen and the slave boy escaping their captors and forming a tenuous alliance with Christian warriors en route to Jerusalem. They set sail on a ship enshrouded in windless fog, so they don’t know where they’re going, or when (or if) they’ll arrive.
Valhalla Rising has the misfortune of starting with its best chapter and steadily growing more ponderous from there, dragged down by a religious theme that’s as thin as the filmmaking is relentlessly spare. Yet it’s a beautiful head trip, too, like a John Milius film reduced to its pure, masculine essence and shot through one of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s lens filters. The sequence on the ship, in particular, is a vivid existential nightmare unto itself, as the Christians, hovering near death, believing they’ve been cursed, wonder what God has in mind for them—or if He even exists. Mikkelsen’s presence suggests a dispiriting answer, and Refn follows through with a pungent vision of what a godless place might look like.