Thursday, September 16, 2010

A Glorious Death

Valhalla Rising(2009)
Directed By Nicolas Winding Refn
"In the beginning there was man and nature and then the men with crosses came" begins "Valhalla Rising", a bleak and brutal Viking mini-epic, that’s closer to the historical tragedy of

"Aguirre, The Wrath Of God” or "The New World", than the burly Norse influenced action films like ‘Conan”, "Pathfinder", or “The 13TH Warrior”.

The film begins with a slave being forced to take part in a gladiatorial duel on a remote mountain against two men, while his neck is chained to a stake.

The slave will be named One-Eye, because as his young assistant says “you need a name and you’ve only got one eye”.

There is very little dialog in the film, and One-Eye never says anything at all.

Like the psychic Cyclops of "Krull", he literally dreams of the future. One-Eye sees of a pond in a dream, and then in real life finds a stone arrow head (another portent of things to come) at the bottom of the pond, that he uses to free himself, and extract revenge on his captors.

Dream images in the film re-occur and overlap in various ways that only make sense upon completion, but I'm getting ahead of myself.

Once One-Eye escapes he crosses paths with a group of men who are gathered around a bonfire of corpses, while a group of nude frightened women sit under their gaze.

These men are Christians on their way to the Crusade, in search of wealth, glory, riches, and a chance to absolve themselves of their sins in the baptism of holy battle.

One-Eye agrees to go along with the “men of God” as one of the film’s chapters dubs itself, and piles aboard their long-ship to Jerusalem.

After uncountable days of doldrums and all consuming mist, then men find themselves in a heavily wooded forest that resembles no place any of them has ever seen.

The men believe they are in Hell.

They are certainly not in the Middle East.

So they take some hallucinogenic brew (the captain had been saving for just such an occasion) and go exploring.

Though there is often gore and violence in One-Eye’s wake, director Nicolas Winding Refn pays more attention to scenery and mood than carnage.

There is a constant sense of tension and foreboding similar to Refn’s disastrous “Fear X”, but here the suspense leads to pay offs; the emotional valleys give way to peaks and back again.

Images inked blood red flash to the screen, before fading back to the blues and blacks of the Norse lands, or the fertile greens and yellows of “Hell” (the film was shot in it’s entirety in Scotland).

The cinematography is beautiful, and the lack of context and narration allows the journey of the film to be as mysterious for viewers as it would be for the characters.

Action fans may have to adjust for the measured pacing of the shots and editing style, but though the film does focus on the scenery and the texture of faces and objects it never lags either.

Like Herzog's "Fitzcerraldo" it took me some time to adjust to the fact that the film would be thoroughly anti-epic (instead of focusing on an important group of heroes changing the world, it looks at a small group of fools discovering the tragic limitations of their heroic ambitions).

“Valhalla Rising” has more personality and style than any action film since Refn’s last movie, “Bronson”, a film that was critically overshadowed by the more "sociologically pertinent" prison tough guy movies, “A Prophet” and “Hunger”.

“Valhalla Rising” outside of its formalist dream logic, is a film of naturalism, where One-Eye becomes as much a force of nature (mysterious and silent) as the carnivorous New World the Christians stumble through terrified and insane.

Odin, all-father of the Norse Gods was said to walk the world as an old man with one eye, and though it would be stretching to say “One-Eye” fills in this grand position, he does become a super-human force to the Christians, as it is made clear (to the audience) by the final flashback (to the funeral stones and the water) that he is just a man.

Jump cuts usually abound in action movies, and they can cut down on the sense of distance and time, whether this is in travel or combat, it disembodies both activities.

In Valhalla Rising you feel the emptiness of time elapsing in travel and the rush of sounds and movement that comes with skull bludgeonings and disembowelment's.

Stripped of any over-arching narrative, the films best feature may be only an extension of these two basic elements; slowness and savagery.

But the two are combined with such hypnotic rhythm, it's hard to unglue yourself from the film's world enough to care about a lack of larger themes.

What need have Vikings for frilly "themes".

In the beginning, after all, “there was only man and nature.”

No comments: