Director: Nicholas Winding Refn
Cast: Mads Mikkelsen, Maarten Steven
Smoke. Hills. Sea. Mute Vikings. This is how you know you're in arthouse territory. And they don't come more arty than Nicholas Winding Refn's new feature. Following up Bronson's bare-knuckle brawl with a mythical tale of crusading Vikings, Winding Refn waves aside conventional ideas like plot, or character. Who needs either when you have a psychopathic cyclops and a smoke machine?
One-Eye (Mikkelsen), whose facial disfigurement is pretty obvious, is a violent Viking. Not just violent, but borderline bonkers. Held captive in Scotland and kept in a cage, the mute menace is fed by a boy (Steven) and used as a plaything for battering others to bits. Not a smart thing to do, given that he's never belonged to anyone for more than 5 years. Give him a rock or a lump of wood and he's all but a free man. Chain him to a stump and he'll break your neck with it.
Escape hatched (and boy in tow), One-Eye sets off to return home. On the way, he crosses paths with some Christians, on a quest to reach The Holy Land. Joining forces with the silent psycho, their group gathers strength from his brute power. But when fog surrounds their boat, stranding them off shore, their awe turns to dread, afraid that the outsiders have cursed them forever.
This is the point where it all goes weird. Switching from grainy realism to gritty fantasy, the remained of the film plays out in a haze of confusion. Staring out across the waves, the sailors lament their scuppered state. They do a lot of that. The staring. As they see nothing, flashes of red-tinted hell burst into One-Eye's mind. The wind and the ocean create an eerie soundtrack for the lost souls to search to. And, every now and then, loud grunge music thrashes your eardrums. Just to keep things interesting.
But it's hard to stop your mind from wandering as they discover a foreign land, full of lush trees and still water. Stalked by invisible natives, the landscape is littered with doom. All that's left for them to do is walk round in circles, grunting and groaning before hacking each other to pieces. They'd rather do that than have a conversation - you're doing well if you can tell any of the beardy bastards apart.
It all looks dazzling, that's for sure. Developing his Kubrickian style, the director's sparse imagery is suggestive and stylish. Covered in mud and drained of colour, the digital footage has all the impact of its bone-crunching violence. With chapters like "Wrath", "Hell" and "The Sacrifice", Winding Refn is clearly aiming for something bigger. But what that metaphor is, God only knows. And he's not telling. It's designed to be provocative, but the only thing you'll think of is Aguirre. And this is no Werner Herzog movie.
Shrouded in dense cloud, Valhalla Rising is meant to be metaphorical, but is mostly repetitive. At 90 minutes, it feels like two hours. Two hours of staring into mist.