Reviews: Valhalla Rising

Style over substance?

I don't know if Valhalla Rising is a Shoot The Shaggy Dog Story, but it felt like one. There's probably some sort of message here likely involving religion, spirituality, and redemption, but I haven't been able to tell what it is.

I suppose it could be interpreted as anti-religion: The Christian Vikings are introduced apparently having finished some sort of religiously-motivated atrocity, and the Native Americans similarly kill them one by one for the heinous crime of taking a walk through their burial ground. The Christian Viking leader is ultimately corrupt and gets his whole party killed for his glory quest, the non-Christian character is the one who gets something remotely close to a redemption ending. But at that moment I was shaking my fists asking "Why??" at the apparent Diabolus Ex Machina instead of feeling any sort of catharsis. I don't know, there may be something more subtle here that I'm missing, if that's the case I'd be glad if someone could enlighten me.

But in any case, what made Valhalla Rising worth watching for me was that it's definitely got style. I'd say it's comparable to No Country For Old Men in this regard. The movie somehow manages to instill a sense of ominousness without relying on a lot of violence or scary imagery, and anything remotely close to a villain doesn't even show up until the fourth act (out of six total), and there is no direct confrontation with them until the very ending. The violence is kind of refreshing—there's not a lot, but the few gory instances isn't glorified action movie violence, or Torture Porn. It's just there. There's not a lot of talking, but there is a lot of slow, quiet scenes (and Scenery Porn). The soundtrack is just right, I don't think this movie would have been as effective without it. In another movie the surreal imagery would have been narmy, but here it actually works because of the soundtrack and the overall tone.

In short: I don't regret watching it. Whether I'll want to watch it again depends on if I hit a Fridge Brilliance moment further down the road that elevates Valhalla Rising from "pretty but incomprehensible/substance-less art film". I'll gladly eat my words if that happens.

Quiet and bleak, but not worthless.

Valhalla Rising is not for everyone. Maybe even not for most people. It's bleak, brutal and very light on storytelling. Nonetheless, it was a profoundly interesting film to watch.

The movie doesn't have a plot in the traditional sense. It picks up In Medias Res, and ends abruptly. It's a stark depiction of events that feels more like a simple slice of time—rather than a series of plot points leading up to a climax—and this slice is not rushed by any means. Dialogue occurs very infrequently and much of the film consists of establishing shots and long stretches of silence. This does slow the viewer down and give them time to appreciate what the characters must be thinking at the time—the events of the film are such that they must all have some pretty strange thoughts—but it also basically leaves the characterization, and the moral, if there is any, up to the viewer.

And to those of you expecting an action film, prepare to be disappointed. While One-Eye is undoubtedly a badass, the fight scenes are so brief and vicious that you're left reeling. The fighting is presented matter-of-factly. Rather than "Here is the hardcore Viking hero kicking ass", it's "Here is a man caving another man's skull in with a rock" or "Here is a man ripping someone's intestines out with his bare hands. Draw your own conclusions." It's no celebration of violence.

Another surprising element of this film is that it manages to be genuinely terrifying in parts, despite containing nothing that would normally scare the viewer. The often surreal filmography combined with an incredibly ominous soundtrack produces a hard-to-describe sense of menace that pervades the whole movie, especially in the second half. The characters inadvertently land their boat somewhere on the Canadian coastline, and think they've run aground in Hell. Somehow, despite the rolling hills and lush forests, it seems they might not be too far off. It's probably the first film in which a scene of a man stacking rocks fills you with abject terror.

Essentially, Valhalla Rising is a film for when you don't want a conventional movie-watching experience. It's very strange and leaves a little too much to the imagination, but it has a sort of bleak beauty and leaves the viewer thinking hard. Maybe worth looking at. Just once.