by Paul Deines
Profiles in Batshittery is a series where I break down a train-wreck film, one with style and exuberance that fell short artistically and commercially. The type of film that still draws me in when I happen upon it late night on TV. I choose one batshit classic per year, beginning in 2013 and moving back year by year (I’ll select a 2014 entry before this year’s out).
This series has become more of a challenge than I could have imagined, and never more so than this entry. Besides checking the basic parameters I’ve set, choosing each film is largely a matter of intuition. I have to be drawn to a picture multiple times over despite the fact that it’s not all that good. So much batshit appeal is the sudden electricity of a scene of dialogue or a shot composition that sears in your brain. Discussing the film as a whole can’t do justice to this experience, and maybe that’s the point of the critical eye. Anyway, I'm going to lean hard on the visual illustrations (all of which are decidedly NSFW) to give you a taste of this magnificent – and magnificently addled – head-trip of a film: Nicolas Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising starring Mads Mikkelsen.
What it promised …
I remember seeing this trailer before a lonesome screening of Werner Herzog’s My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? in the West Village, and it looked like a sword-and-sandal epic by way of Terrence Malick and Ken Russell. It also reunited two out-there foreign indie superstars who had recently found a wider audience.
Mads Mikkelsen is the most unlikely popular actor today. He’s everyone’s favorite creep, but there aren’t perversions behind his eyes; there’s nothingness. Mikkelsen’s mind seems scorched, as though he was born broken by the world, and this damage has calcified into a complete, unvarnished malevolence.
Mikkelsen burst into the American consciousness playing the baddie in Casino Royale, the 2006 revival of the James Bond franchise. Since then, he’s taken the titular role of NBC’s Hannibal, somehow managing to inhabit a character that seemed exclusive property of Anthony Hopkins. Yet Mikkelsen’s long been a fixture in Danish cinema, beginning in 1996 when he played a key supporting role in Nicolas Winding Refn’s first feature Pusher. Eight years later, Refn crafted a sequel centered on Mikkelsen’s character, Tonny. The skin-headed thug is both vicious and sensitive. He wants to be accepted and loved, but his only coping mechanism is violence; Mikkelsen makes the role sing.
By the time Valhalla Rising was released in 2010 (it was completed in 2009) its director had achieved a modicum of American recognition with the violent arthouse hit Bronson, a phantasmagoric biopic of England’s most violent criminal starring Tom Hardy. Refn is an image-and-noise director, and without strong performers, his pictures hew toward the vacuous. His stories take place in a hopelessly corrupt world, and so Mikkelsen fits perfectly in there: he carries that wounded rage with him. This lends both Pusher 2 and Valhalla Rising a sense of humanity in the midst of horrific acts.
This was his follow-up to Bronson, a tale of a one-eyed warrior (Mikkelsen) who escapes captivity only to be conscripted into a band of early Christian crusaders. With a young boy (Maarten Stevenson) in tow, the warrior sets sail for the Holy Land but is swept off-course to pre-Columbian America. Awfulness – both expected and harrowingly unexpected – ensues.
What it delivered … (fair warning: SPOILERS LIE AHEAD)
A strange, druggy treatise on the death of an old religion, punctuated by quick-shock horror-movie violence.
The Norse mythology allusions are thick in Valhalla Rising. Mikkelsen has an empty socket, just as Odin did. He is said to come from Hell, a place that originated in Norse mythology (Hel, keeper of the underworld, was the daughter of Loki). One-Eye (the protagonist he takes this name at the boy’s suggestion) binds a rival to a rock and pulls out his entrails, which is not so far removed from Loki’s fate. The film ends with the death of all the main characters save the boy, just as Ragnarok ends with the gods’ deaths leaving a younger generation to rule in their stead (the human couple Lif and Lifprasir). And the opening title of the film reads:
So Mikkelsen is a personification of the old faith, and Winding Refn is making a film about the death throes of a warrior mythos. As themes go, it’s pretty novel, but it’s a stretch for the viewer. That’s not a dig, though. After all, tragedy is supposed to be about placing oneself in extreme circumstances different from one’s own. You’re unlikely to be the last vestige of your belief system, dragged into a new savagery by the mad proselytizers of the new dominant religion. There’s something exciting about being in the end-times of the Norse warrior cult.
Winding Refn says the narrative takes place in 1100 AD. The pagan clans feel ancient, though, as though they were untouched going back to the Bronze Age. Presumably, we’re in Scandinavia, though everyone’s speaking English. All of this is conjecture, anyway. The director never specifies a time or place within the film. More than once, the crusaders question whether they are traveling into hell, which seems equally likely. Indeed, the most stark chapter transition (the film is divided into six chapters) lays bare the possibility that they have actually entered the underworld:
In many ways, the broken spiritual realm of this protagonist (and the holy fools around him) is the setting of the film. This nebulous world is one of the film’s strengths.
What works and what does not …
What resolutely does not work in Valhalla Rising is any attempt to vocalize its theology. This is not a picture that has something cogent to say about religion. Obviously the Christian crusaders are despicable, a mix of madmen and opportunists. They are led by a gloriously warped blowhard (Ewan Stewart) who is only partially held in check by his religious partner (Gary Lewis). We first happen upon then burning the bodies of a village’s men and boys and holding the women as naked captives.
Once they arrive in the New World, these charlatans erect a couple crosses and proceed to drink a psychotropic concoction, compelling them to acts of meaningless savagery.
But the old ways were no better. After all, One Eye is an enslaved fighter by the Pagan clans at the beginning of the film. He’s chained to a pole and forced to fight men to the death, and when he’s not doing that he’s held in a cage. If these are practitioners of the old ways, it doesn’t speak well for those. It also makes one wonder if One Eye is one of them – just the member of an unlucky clan – or is he actually is an emissary from the underworld like everyone says? The pagans are superstitious relics, anyway, prattling on about the flesh-eaters coming up from the south:
The natives of the New World are no less brutal than the Christians or the pagans. In this world, there is no impetus to demonstrate anything resembling mercy. Even the sacrifice of Valhalla Rising’s final act is little more than closing the circle of bloodshed. There’s redemption in it.
The only moment of uplifting transcendence, though, comes after the crusade collapses, the only two sensible men follow One-Eye and the boy into the forested hills. One, the group’s spiritual leader, is mortally wounded. The other (Jamie Sives) is the son of the Christians’ insane commander. Atop the highest point, in the warmth of the sun, these men debate with One-Eye whether it matters if they die in this land. They’ve seen horrors and lost people close to them, and they wonder whether the way one lives life has meaning. So many Winding Refn protagonists face the prospect of horrible death; this director is a master at dramatizing the primal terror of forthcoming agony and nothingness. I think we all have this fear when we consider the impending void. This is the one time that the words coming out of these characters’ mouths resemble something like insight.
But what definitely works in Valhalla Rising is also the thing that’s so batshit about it.
What’s so batshit about it?
Thanks for asking, template-I-wrote-myself.
Valhalla Rising is a drug movie of the first order. It feels like the type of film you could watch on mute and sync with a Pink Floyd album (search the film on YouTube and after two pages all you have are clips of the film paired with industrial rock).
Throughout the picture, One-Eye is haunted by sudden visions, blood-red premonitions of his escape, his journey over water and the horror that awaits him. If the director is tipping the scales to favor his Norse warrior, it’s in this. Odin provides guidance where Christ most definitely does not. The violence is operatic too; neck-snapping with chains, disemboweling, heads on pikes, arrows flying from out of nowhere. If you can stomach it, it’s really quite wondrous. This death is One-Eye’s worship. But what does all this aesthetically-pleasing ugliness mean?
Maybe Valhalla Rising has no deeper meaning. Maybe it’s an exploitation film with pretensions to artistry, like Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto. But it looks magnificent, alternating between stark nature and vivid psychotropia. In the former, the wild world seems to envelop the hard men that stand astride it. It’s beautiful yet menacing, like a Turner painting. The hallucinogenic imagery, meanwhile, provides some unsettling compositions. Often the simple shock of transitioning from natural hues to bright red tones makes you leap. Other times, Winding Refn produces snapshots straight out of hell, like a muddy crusader gone native, filtered through One-Eye’s drug addled brain: the exclamation point at the end of the film’s craziest sequence (scored perfectly by Danish rocker Peter Peter and Peter Kyed):
Can I recommend it?
I’ll just say yes. Valhalla Rising is a brain-thumper. And it’s a quick one at barely 90 minutes. Nicolas Winding Refn knew exactly what he wanted to make, and he made it: to what end I cannot say. But the shots was glorious, and there are a few stellar performances. Mikkelsen seems pretty effortless in a role that would be impossible for maybe any other actor. Ewan Stewart is remarkably scary as a zealot of some charisma but little intelligence. He manages to be both intimidating and comical standing erect with his nose upturned, not unlike a Monty Python character played by John Cleese. Gary Lewis, too, walks a tightrope elegantly as a priestly figure who can be tremendously reassuring even as he ushers men to certain death.
This is a genuine unseen gem. It opened in New York and Los Angeles in July 2010 on the same day as Inception. And it never got wide release, grossing less than $20,000 in America.
As a coda I suspect will be common in these Profiles going forward – Valhalla Rising did not signal an inexorable decline in the fortunes of director and star. Mads Mikkelsen went on to star in the award-winning Danish film The Hunt which garnered him multiple awards. A year later, he was eating folks on NBC. Nicolas Winding Refn, meanwhile, followed up Valhalla Rising with Drive. This bloody, stylish deconstruction of the noir thriller (starring Ryan Gosling, Carrie Mulligan and Bryan Cranston) was released in America in 2011 and received rapturously. The excitement surrounding Drive effectively eclipsed any memory of Valhalla Rising.
Next up … we go back to 2009 and even deeper into the moral abyss with Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist.