I remember seeing Mads Mikkelsen for the first time in Casino Royale (2006) as the Bond villain Le Chiffre — a cold, sophisticated cutthroat with a peculiar attribute of crying blood. With those eyes, he nonchalantly panned the room, gazing into people’s souls with his stoic glare all while making everything seem like it had a distinct, strategic purpose. Those little moments made me realize this guy had something special. Then I found the Danish Pusher trilogy, directed by Nicolas Winding Refn. Mikkelsen starred in the first two movies and was so different from Le Chiffre, but he still had it. Two things happened at this point: I realized I love Mikkelsen and I love Refn. So imagine my excitement when I saw a trailer in 2009 for Refn’s dream-like, ultra-violent Viking odyssey, Valhalla Rising!
Within the first 15 minutes of Valhalla Rising, we see Mikkelsen’s scarred, mute captive, known as One Eye, slit throats, crush skulls and disembowel his enemies. He is a captive, yes, but we very quickly realize he has been biding his time until he can escape captivity. One Eye is indeed a warrior, one of necessity but not vengeance or pride. He fights to survive not for an ideology or religion but to simply stay alive. Mikkelsen does not say a word for the entire 93-minute running time of Valhalla Rising, but he creates a threatening presence without them; it is all in his non-verbal expressions. His eyes, his posture … everything about him exudes power, and it is believable that this warrior would inspire fear.
This sounds like an action-packed outing for Refn so far, right? It’s actually paced closer to an Andrei Tarkovsky film than a Ridley Scott epic. The introspection of its slow burn is also not unlike a Terrence Malick film (minus the whispering voiceovers), and Valhalla Rising is abundantly more disturbing. Much of the dialogue is an elaboration on ideas and narrative beats that are shown, not told. We see a father-son relationship develop between One Eye and a young, Pagan boy forced to experience the horrors of the world. The boy barely speaks, and he and One Eye begin to bond throughout their journey with hardly a word. A filmmaker telling stories without words takes skill, and when done right, it can have a unique effect. Refn does it right here.
The film was shot in the timeless mountains of Scotland. Gorgeous rolling hills frame the landscapes in which the characters travel, but the rich colors are muted to a dark, grim sight. This tells us the world is dangerous, and each character seems to have an aura of light around them, as if the landscape is dead and they are just barely alive. The visuals in Valhalla Rising are worthy of praise. As an epic made for less than $6 million, Refn was able to create a very effective world. Even being in a boat on tranquil seas becomes a point of tension. During one of the six parts that make up this film, the characters are on a boat. But there is no wind, so the boat’s sails have no way to carry them across the waters and they are stranded. They cannot even drink the water because it will kill them. They run out of food, they miss their homes and they begin to question God. What will men do in a religiously oppressive time when omens are held as fact? Well, the misfortune must be coming from the young Pagan boy and his one-eyed friend, right?
Religion is a major part of Valhalla Rising, too. It takes place during a time when Viking Crusaders would travel the world, forcing people to become Christians or kill them for being creatures of Satan. It was a time when there were literally no rules because everything that happened in life was seen as a deity’s response to human actions. Run out of water? It’s a sign from God. Survive a fight with an enemy? Clearly, God wanted them to perish. Child die of disease? Obviously, God is punishing you. Refn uses this zealous mentality to his advantage, causing every character to be unreliable except One Eye and the boy. They are the backbone of this film. And though One-Eye is absent of religious expression, he still occasionally has blood-red visions, almost making him closer to God than the ones who serve a holy king.
Valhalla Rising is a powerhouse of a film, and though I do not believe it’s a perfect exploration of faith and survival, I do believe it is one hell of a ride. Refn’s influences are certainly present, the likes of Akira Kuroawa, Werner Herzog and Kenneth Anger undoubtedly being among them. And, of course, Mikkelsen is at the forefront of its excellence, showing us that 13 years after his first feature film, he was still nurturing it. And after his more recent pictures like Riders of Justice and Another Round, I hope Mikkelsen has decades more to give us.