Valhalla Rising (2009)

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*. What was Nicolas Winding Refn thinking? What did he want to accomplish with this movie?
*. I went in, fingers crossed, hoping for a Viking remake of Aguirre, the Wrath of God. That’s obviously the mythic source here, but all context and meaning have been jettisoned, with endless shots of barren Scottish highlands providing the rest of the ballast running time.
*. Does it look pretty? Sure. But as I’ve had occasion to remark (many times) before, I’m tired of empty movies with beautiful cinematography. And could anything be emptier than this?
*. There is little in the way of story, and less dialogue. Mads Mikkelsen’s One-Eye, undisputed heavyweight champion of the highlands, isn’t even a character. He comes out of nothing and is heading home. Or he’s born of hell and is going back. That’s heavy, man. He’s definitely the strong, silent type, but he’s sympathetic because he takes care of the Boy. Yes, it’s a pre-apocalyptic version of The Road, a brutal picture of a time when men were men and women were kept barefoot, naked, and in chains.
*. By the way, I didn’t throw in that line about One-Eye being heavyweight champion of the highlands just for laughs. When did the fight club get so hot in Hollywood? Refn and Guy Ritchie seem to both be big fans, working bare-knuckle action into storylines where it seems totally inappropriate. Like in Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes and here. I mean, didn’t these highland clans have enough real fighting to do without keeping a cage fighter as a pet?
*. I guess one of the good things about not having a story is that you don’t have to come up with an ending for your story. Here everyone just sort of walks away. Who knows what’s going to happen next. Who cares?
*. Another comic-book movie. One-Eye is a slightly less buff Conan, and everybody in his world speaks in portentous block caps. Meanwhile, Mikkelsen’s acting consists of looking blankly at nothing, his scarred head like some roughly-carved totem to be posed on either side of the screen, with a spectacular natural backdrop stretching across the rest of its length.
*. That composition, with a face placed to one side or just off centre, is used throughout the movie. I think the point is to emphasize the scale and emptiness of the landscape. It certainly seems to establish the priority nature has over the characters.

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*. I like the tar pit sequence at the end. Why? Because that’s where I felt I was trapped. Could the pace here have been any more ponderous? Why not throw in some slow motion sequences, and very slow fades? What’s the rush, anyway? We aren’t going anywhere.
*. Refn apparently thought he was making some kind of a Viking science-fiction movie. I’m not sure what he meant by this. I also don’t know what he meant by taking the title from Kenneth Anger.
*. I thought at first that something interesting might develop out of the idea of the raiders as holy warriors. Historically, the Vikings were pagan raiders who felt threatened (not without reason) by Christians, and their attacks on monasteries weren’t just cash grabs (though they were that, mostly). But instead of following up on this we stick to the usual fanatic colonialists sailing into the heart of darkness on a mission of civilization and plunder, and getting neither.
*. So again I’m left wondering what Refn was thinking. It’s slow-moving, pointless, and pretentious, a dumbed-down version of a more accomplished film that took far more chances nearly forty years earlier. What was the point?

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