Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Review of Valhalla Rising (2009)

Nic Winding Refn is one of the most interesting directors currently working, and if that sounds like code for “he’s good but not great”, or “his ideas are worthwhile but his films aren’t”, then it isn’t. He’s one of that rare breed of current film-makers, along with Rob Zombie, Lars von Trier, Aki Kaurismaki and others, where you can sense the joy he has in making his film, whilst the film itself remains serious. I appreciate this approach. It often results in films which are fun, unique, thoughtful, and yet maintain their surface effect of being tense, thrilling, scary.

This principle is in effect in abundance throughout Refn’s “Valhalla Rising”, a film which is indebted to David Lynch, Werner Herzog, Andrei Tarkovsky and Sigmund Freud, and yet works perfectly well on its own terms. It takes two endlessly fascinating recurring tropes in art (that of the silent, omnipotent “superman”, and the descent into hell/the heart of darkness), and weaves a giddy, scary, fierce concoction of images around that. Set against the backdrop of the crusades, it’s a fascinating, weird and scary film that slots nicely into Refn’s oeuvre.

We begin with the mute Norse soldier One-Eye (aptly named), who is kept in a cage and fed gruel in a dirty bowl. He is occasionally wheeled out by his owners, and made to fight other men. He’s very good at fighting, as a lot of characters in Refn’s films are. In his very first scene, he is tied to a post, and yet manages to disarm and break the necks of two men attacking him with knives. There is hushed talk of how One-Eye has yet to lose a fight, and maybe, just maybe, he is sent from Hell itself. He is feared, and certainly fearsome. Played by Mads Mikkelsen, he is not so much a character as an interactive piece of scenery Refn decided to use. He is more of an embodiment, of the male psyche, of our desire to be strong, of Christ, of Death, and so on.

One day, One Eye is sold to a new troupe, and in a brutal scene involving evisceration and clubbings, he escapes. He murders every single one of his new owners, bar a child known only as “The Boy” (Maarten Stevenson), who One Eye comes to communicate through. (here we see one of the oldest tropes in cinema come through; you can brutally slaughter any grown man in any number of ways, but a child? No way).

One-Eye and The Boy trek, and trek, and trek some more, until they meet a group of Christian Crusaders trying to find the holy land. After this, the film gets murky in a very Danish way, and the chapter titles that the film portions itself up with get more overtly theological; “Part 3: Men of God”, “Part 4: The Holy Land”, and my favourite, the portentous “Part 5: Hell”.

Refn has composed this film to within an inch of itself, as is his method. There’s a certain rejection of a traditional narrative, and in place of it there is symbolism, imagery; overtones as opposed to a stance. Refn very effectively creates a sense of heightened reality, where all things are imposing and foreboding, accentuated by his use of the booming, pulsing, electronic score, composed by Peter Peter and Peter Kyed. Their work is, arguably, the most important component of the film, or certainly the most prominent, and without it the film may have been laughable, or worse, dismissible. It forces you to deal with it.

Luckily, there is a lot to deal with. Just because Refn has tropes that he appears to return to film after film (mainly, men), doesn’t mean that those tropes aren’t worthwhile. He’s picked a good subject to make films around. The film this time has a loose, strung together style that evokes Apocalypse Now and, in more than one instance, Werner Herzog’s “Aguirre: The Wrath of God”. Those are two seminal films about very similar themes, and it’s good company for the film to be in. The cinematography by Morten Søborg adds a certain sense of unease, shifting from meticulously composed symmetrical compositions to floating, faux-documentary style, from cutting far wide, to entering extreme close-up. And the lighting, too, is a delight, and the obvious use of red-lighting (a weakness of mine) is extraordinarily effective.

By turns horrifying and beautiful, slow and weird, it’s a film where violence is never far away and men hitting each other is the order of the day; just like everything else Refn has done (and in particular it makes a great companion with Refn’s later “Only God Forgives”, which shares this films tendency for the juxtaposition of aesthetic and brutality). There's more than one wince-worthy moment.

The film also has heavy-handed religious themes and ideas, having immense fun with the crusades backdrop (choice dialogue: “we’ve raised the cross, now we will raise the sword!”). It makes us think about the nature of God complexes. There's a recurring image of a man trying to stack stones, but they keep falling down, and the film hints at more than one instance that it's about the sort of nature we try to impose on everything to console ourselves of the cruel, chaotic, deterministic nature of the universe. But then, the film's about a lot of things.

It comes across as a sort of The Seventh Seal on acid, although no flashy grab-line can really do justice to the film. It makes me picture Refn sat by his camera in the Scottish Highlands, giggling to himself as he wonders what would be great to shoot next. Ultimately, it’s the kind of film only Refn could make, and that comes with the caveat that it’s the kind of film only Refn would make. But you know what? Good for him.

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