Unless you’ve got a particularly strong stomach, Valhalla Rising is not a popcorn flick. People get seriously hurt, and not with anything as clean as a bullet. It takes place in 1000 AD, so it’s hands, swords, rocks, and axes that give way to brains, guts, and incredibly liberal amounts of blood. Just so we know who we’re dealing with here: When we are first introduced to our hero, the mute, savage slave who comes to be named “One Eye,” he is engaged in the medieval version of a Roman gladiator contest, fighting another slave to the death in a mud pit located in the valley of a grim, wind-whipped Scottish countryside, while a sparse audience of a couple tribal chieftains looks on. The catch here is that One Eye is chained to a pole in the center of the pit by an iron collar around his neck. Even though the other slave has free use of his body, One Eye still manages to ultimately snap his opponent’s neck in his own chain.
Still, as gory as the film is, this is not pseudo-thrilling, violent summer blockbuster, but rather an exploration of the basic and base nature of humankind in a fairly unpleasant period of human history. The Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn seems to have taken a page from the Scandinavian playbook and presented a movie that is of a piece with the epic grimness of Bergman’s The Seventh Seal or, in more recent history, Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves. Valhalla Rising unfolds in chapters with headings such as “Wrath,” “Silent Warrior,” and “Hell,” and tells the story of One Eye and a boy slave escaping their original captors and, in their quest to return “home” (wherever that may be), teaming up with a band of crusading Vikings set on an ill-fated quest for Jerusalem. The plot is about as simple as that, and the film works mostly on a symbolical level, focusing its silent, implicit questions on the figure of One Eye as being either a parallel or inversion of a Christ figure.
The film speaks for itself with its striking visuals — at times intensely beautiful, at times intensely disturbing — of mostly facial close-ups, unsparing violence, and landscape, landscape, and more landscape. When the Vikings mistakenly arrive in a land that is clearly the New World rather than the Middle East, the camera alone is able to fluidly translate both the exhilaration and the sheer terror of arriving in a vast expanse of unnervingly uncharted territory. While we know they are likely at some northern point in North America, the anxiety of being totally lost is viscerally palpable. Indeed, this is a film in which we become watchful, as there is little to be heard. One Eye himself is mute, and in general the dialogue is extremely sparse — it’s in modern English, which mostly flows seamlessly and unnoticeably, except for a jarring moment of vernacular in which a rowing Viking repeatedly tells his screaming comrade with an arrow in his torso to “shut the fuck up.”
Overall, Valhalla Rising is a film that resides and glories in its visual moments of triumph, in which we sometimes find a world of symbolic emotion and meaning in one gaze, one camera pan around a river bend, one medieval grunt and nod of the head. And sometimes we don’t. The moments come throughout the film — sometimes rich, at other times unearned, empty, or too inscrutable — so that the effort more than the result is felt. Still, it is a transporting experience, and I guarantee you will leave the theater reaching for your phone or iPod, thanking God, Christ, or whoever, that you weren’t born one thousand years ago.