DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: TIFF 2009: Valhalla Rising

Sunday 13 September 2009

TIFF 2009: Valhalla Rising

Valhalla Rising (2009) dir. Nicolas Winding Refn
Starring: Mads Mikkelson, Gary Lewis, Ewan Stewart


There wasn’t a film I anticipated more at TIFF than “Vahalla Rising”. If anyone was going to do a mythological Viking story, I would have chosen Refn – a bold and muscular filmmaker largely unknown in North America but revered internationally for his magnificent Pusher trilogy. He also shocked me to bits this year at Sundance with his raucous ode to British prison lifer Charles Bronson, in “Bronson”.

And so with ‘Vahalla Rising’, a Danish filmmaker doing a Scandinavian story with Mads Mikkelson in the lead?? Pass me the popcorn please.

What Refn births onto the screen is the most alienating displeasing mind-numbing cinematic garbage I’ve seen in a long time.

Somewhere in Northern Scotland, or Scandinavia (which, at the time, was not all that dissimilar), it’s the Middle Ages – a time and place when Christian zealots warred with the old pagan/heathen way of life. A group of sadistic Christians are touring the countryside showcasing their pagan prisoners in a gruesome gladiatorial gambling game. Their star gladiator is ‘One Eye’ (Mads Mikkelson), who is tattooed to the max and with his left eye pulled out and grown over with skin. The match involves ‘One Eye’ forced to fight off two free opponents while tied with rope to a wooden stake. No matter what the challenge One Eye pummels and beats his opponents like rag dolls. Eventually One Eye escapes killing all his captors and seeks to return home.

Along with a young boy One Eye hook up with a group of Scottish crusaders looking to free the Holy Land. With nowhere to go One Eye and the kid tag along. The journey is long, slow, dreamy and violent. The faction eventually turn against each other when they realize their path has led them to some other land, instead of Jerusalem – a place where One Eye confronts his biggest challenge.

Sounds exciting, full of violent bloody fights, killing, and swordplay? Refn restricts his ability to entertain by handicapping himself severely. Chiefly, our hero ‘One Eye’ is rendered as a silent contemplative killer, a man of decision and action, like Mad Max or the harmonica man in ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’, but unfortunately without any dialogue whatsoever. Secondly Refn sets a pace not unlike ‘Once Upon A Time in the West’, but the absolute slowest moments in that film without Leone’s writing skills to pay off the silences.

What we get is a slothlike metaphysical journey through rain and fog, with characters talking and moving in slow motion. There’s so little going on that Refn in a couple scenes ramps up the volume of the ambient atmospheric soundtrack to build up to absolutely nothing. Refn also inexplicably divides the film into six chapters with bold titles like ‘Hell’, ‘Warrior’ or ‘The Saviour’ falsely implying some kind of narrative shift or change in tone. Nope, it’s a just continuation of slow panning shots of mountains and fog.

The film builds to a reveal which, considering the terrain they were traversing makes no logical sense whatsoever, yet I still guessed it. Even with a third act twist Refn dulls any dramatic effect by slowing things down and refusing to throw us any kind of bone.

‘Vahalla Rising’ is a complete and utter waste of time and money.

1 comment :

Anonymous said...

Normally I don't advocate leaving a film early. In this case, the ones who did were the smart ones! Huge disappointment and 90 long minutes I'll never get back. Your review is dead on.