Vikings just don't get the screen time they deserve. Not even the fake kind. You know them — drunken, rowdy, blond alpha males with horned helmets. It's hard to not simply visualize them as besotted sailors in the latest animal pelt fashions who occasionally happen to pillage and plunder villages while raping their women. But forget what you think you might know about Vikings before settling in to view Valhalla Rising — Nicolas Winding Refn's trippy and violent Nordic odyssey.
Set between the eighth and 11th centuries against the stark, gloomy and filth-ridden world of pre-Christian Denmark, we're introduced to One Eye (Mads Mikkelsen, the villain in Casino Royale). He's a fearsome and mute warrior and slave for a Norse clan, and he disposes of his opponents with frightening efficiency while earning coin for his captors. One Eye is sold off, but after the sale he gets free of his shackles (literally) and makes a bloodbath of his new owners, except for a young boy named Are (Maarten Stevenson), the one sympathetic person who'd bring him food and water. Up till this point, Valhalla Rising plays like some sparse deconstructionist version of Gladiator — hyper-realistic violence, stunningly filmed desolate landscapes and little to no dialogue.
One Eye soon encounters an army of Vikings who've been sent on a holy mission to spread Christianity and have been slaughtering the Danes (who were pagans) as part of their crusade. The Vikings enlist One Eye in their religious journey promising him that his sins will be forgiven once they reach Jerusalem. They're barely on their boat before the journey turns sinister. Director Refn sends his motley bunch on a hallucinatory Heart of Darkness-style trip that will leave many scratching their heads.
Valhalla Rising defies explanation. That's because most of it is mired in layers of foggy metaphor. One Eye is a cipher. Depending upon how you interpret it, he's either the devil incarnate or Christ reinvented. And the journey to Jerusalem is either a descent to hell or a faith-testing trip to heavenly redemption. Then again, Refn's flick could just be one bad Viking acid trip with Christian fanaticism guiding it. How you take it is up to you. If you got the patience for a primordial brainteaser you'll dig it. For some, Valhalla Rising could be a picturesque travelogue without a guide to explain what you're seeing.
Opens exclusively at the Burton Theatre (3420 Cass Ave., Detroit) on Friday, Sept. 17. For more info, go to burtontheatre.com or call 313-473-9238
Paul Knoll writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].