In a nutshell, Bored & Dangerous says: “This is the kind of movie where the hero disembowels someone with an arrow head as slowly and deliberately as possible, to inflict maximum pain and misery, on his victim and the audience.”
“I once met man who told me… they eat their own God… Eat his flesh. Drink his blood.”
So there I was, aimlessly scrolling through Netflix in the ‘International Movies’ category, hoping to find something to write about for Bored and Dangerous’ Foreign Movie Weekends, when I stumbled across Valhalla Rising. It was in the International category, and it starred Mads Mikkelsen. More than enough to make me think it would fit the non-English speaking bill. But when the opening titles began to roll, they were in English. I was bummed, until I saw the name Nicolas Winding Refn appear.
He is one modern director who really fascinated me. His Pusher trilogy might not be amazing, but it’s an awesome showcase of a young film maker growing, learning and evolving. Bronson on the other hand is flat out amazing. While Only God Forgives was at least interestingly ambitious. Even the one movie of his I don’t like, Drive, seems like something I need to revisit to see if I was wrong. So, it may not have been for the reason that made me choose it, but seconds into watching, I was excited about what might be on offer, with Valhalla Rising.
As Christianity makes its way across Scotland, the ancient Celtic tribes are under threat. But instead of worrying about that, one particular tribe spends its time making prisoners fight each other to the death. Their reigning champ, nick named One-Eye (Mikkelsen), spends his time fighting, performing forced, hard labor to stay fighting fit, or locked in a cage. But when a premonition leads him to finding a discarded arrow head, it’s all One-Eye needs to break free and kill the entire tribe, accept for one young boy (Maarten Stevenson) who was the only one to ever show any kindness.
When they stumble cross a group of Christian Crusaders, the mute One-Eye lets The Boy speak for them both. Either saying whatever he thinks he needs to so they can survive, or possibly sharing an unspoken connection with One-Eye, The Boy is able to relay a story that sees them accepted by the Christians. Soon, they’re all aboard a boat, headed for Jerusalem to take back the Holy Land.
The IMDB trivia page for Valhalla Rising says that it has approximately 120 lines of dialogue. Even at that low number I think that approximation might be a little on the high side. This movie is all foreboding atmosphere and threatening dread. One-Eye might be the only actual mute, but every character is frugal when it comes to opening their traps. A well deployed scowl or raised eyebrow says more than words ever could.
Winding Refn is a definite stylist. A lot of shots in his movies look like he came up with a cool visual first, then retro fitted a story so he had an excuse to frame it. Usually, that’s the kind of style over substance film making that would immediately turn me off a director. But there’s something in the way he executes his style over substance that makes me always find Winding Refn exciting, and never too showy for the sake of being showy.
And it’s a showiness that I think you need when dealing with a movie as filled with brutality as Valhalla Rising. This is the kind of movie where the hero disembowels someone with an arrow head as slowly and deliberately as possible, to inflict maximum pain and misery, on his victim and the audience. Like his borderline overbearing visual flare, that kind of graphic, usually pointless gore, is the kind of thing that would normally turn me off a movie. But there’s something about the way Nicolas Winding Refn deploys his gore, violence and style, that hits me just right almost every time.