Valhalla Rising Review

The Film

A one eyed warrior only leaves his cage for vicious bloody fights for the men who hold him captive. Patiently, impassively he waits to take back the freedom he had stolen from him when he will serve vengeance on those who have used him. The only member of the tribe that will go near him is the boy, who can enter his cage and survive being near this bloody beast for no apparent reason. When "One Eye" is sold to a new master, the boy goes with him accompanied by a very necessary contingent of guards.
Then his chance arrives, and One Eye is free in a brutal rampage of viscera and pent up rage. Of those with him, only the boy survives.

Travelling through the wild and primal landscapes, the boy follows One Eye until they meet some would be Christian crusaders. His reputation ahead of him, One Eye is invited to join the crusaders' voyage to civilise "heathens" and claim foreign lands for the devout's acquisitive God.

Superstition, disconnection and wordlessness pervade Valhalla Rising. One Eye, played by Mads Mikkelson, is silent bar his terrible violence, and his character is only finally filled out by an eventual act of revelation. The men of these middle ages fight, conquer and destroy all for little in the way of truth, and savagery is never far from the already bestial surface.
The meaning, I guess, is not far from works like The Virgin Spring or Vlacil's Marketa Lazarova with the wild and Pagan in contrast with the supposedly civilising forces of power and religion, and the nature of humanity here is revealed as very definitely animal. Yet, this is a much less structured and intuitive film than you might expect where the brutal One Eye is seen as more truthful and instinctive than those who want to bring enlightenment but have avarice, lust and greed in their hearts.

Valhalla Rising is decidedly poetic, it runs the risks of being misunderstood or dismissed as pretentious. For those reasons I found it very brave, and its courage is also obvious in how relentless it is in the violence it explores. Additionally, it got hold of my visual imagination and has refused to let go of it since I watched it. Striking, imposing and barren settings are exploited for both their untamed beauty and the slightly dreamlike quality of humanity lost amongst them. The camera regularly frames a rugged face at one corner of the image with mist covered mountains behind it, or dives headlong into the mud, blood and mess that follow the characters.
Whether this is a vision of hell, a deconstruction of colonialism, or just a violent lyric, Nicolas Winding Refn's film is truly impressive and a full meal for the eyes and the imagination. It's easy to get lost in it or bewildered by it, but Valhalla Rising will not leave you once you have seen it. Very definitely, recommended.

Technical Specs

Shot digitally, Valhalla Rising is a very moody piece of cinematography with lots of human silhouettes against horizons and landscapes. Unfortunately, this rather accents what looks like haloing to my eyes, especially with light backgrounds and I have marked the transfer down because of this. Contrast is pretty strong with the greys and browns of the image never lost in darkness, and enough grading to allow what is a relatively dark film to be easily appreciated. Detail is excellent and the image is very sharp.

With a hypnotic score that drives the film, the high bitrate 5.1 track copes brilliantly with enveloping the listener in the mood of this piece. Dialogue is occasionally difficult to understand due to some thick accents and some mumbling but I guess this is how the film was shot rather than the disc's fault. The dimensionality of the surround is harder to judge as the main effect here is that of atmosphere rather than action and rarely does dialogue move through the soundstage. The addition of an audio descriptive track is an excellent thing, well done Momentum.

Special Features

The main film is accompanied by a commentary with Alan Jones prompting the director, who doesn't need that much help and speaks fluently in English. Refn explains that he wanted to make a science fiction film and had this project for a long time and that, once he started shooting, the film developed and changed with the arduous locations and the ongoing inspirations behind the story. Interestingly Refn admits to colour blindness and he reveals that the original location was to be Louisiana until he lost faith in backers. The director is alarmingly frank about "fucking annoying" crew, and plays down the political analogies between the crusaders and the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan whilst not entirely disavowing them.

The making of featurette shows footage of the shoot, along with interviews with crew and is kind of narrated by assistant Saskia Pomeroy. It is candid about rows on set and Refn's demanding character who finally sells the movie as perfect "if you want to travel into space". There is also a trailer for the film.

The disc has rather annoying menu design and poster art which sells it as some kind of video game, presumably because this is a difficult film to sell to the greater public. Forced trailers begin the disc and include Outlander and all round thespian and enlightened social commentator Danny Dyer in The Football Factory.


Sure it's a little loopy and rather weird but Valhalla Rising is a gutsy antidote to forgettable rentals and artless movies. This presentation suffers from some edge enhancement but carries a good commentary.

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