Valhalla Rising is Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn's near-about-face from last year's equally delicious, yet utterly different Bronson, perhaps the best one-two film-punch from any director in recent memory. Where Bronson drifted into near-avant-garde territory, Valhalla Rising is a Joseph Conrad-worthy existential journey into the depths of hell. The magnificent Mads Mikkelsen plays a one-eyed Scandinavian gladiator who, after beheading his owner (a Nordic clan chieftain who kept him in a cage like a Jabberwocky between medieval fight-club bouts), joins up with a bunch of equally-looney Christian Viking/zealots on their way to take over Jerusalem. A wrong turn at Albuquerque, leads the navigationally-challenged Crusaders to what looks suspiciously similar to the north shore of the St. Lawrence around Baie-Comeau, QC and into the invisible-clutches of some nasty orange-tinged North American primitives. Much slow-burn carnage ensues.
Valhalla Rising is absolutely magnificent, but it will have a hard time finding an audience. It's at once a gorgeous head-trip/art picture along the lines of Terrence Malick's The New World and a variation on Stallone's final Rambo entry. It's Kubrick by way of Tarantino, with some acid-laced Aguirre-era Herzog thrown in for good measure. In a strange way, it reminded me of Kick-Ass, perhaps because neither film seems to have an definable audience demographic, other than a few hardcore DVD industry participants, most of whom I know personally.
It's probably a stretch, but you get the feeling that Refn is working his way through Stanley Kubrick's catalogue, re-imagining various elements through contemporary Danish eyes. I first noted this with Bronson and the thematic territory it shared with A Clockwork Orange. This time out, Valhalla Rising's haunting soundscape reminded me of The Shining, the eerie buzzed-out atmosphere evokes 2001: A Space Odyssey and the violence, jarring and visceral like that of Full Metal Jacket. Malick is the other obvious influence here, but there are scenes in Valhalla Rising that wouldn't be out of place in an Aleksandr Sokurov flick either. The heavily-atmospheric screen compositions are constructed with varying degrees of saturation, emphasizing deep primary tones that feel almost primal in their rendering. While the combat scenes are bone-crunchingly graphic, Mads Mikkelsen brings a sublime and simple purity to the role, a combination of rugged charisma and inner stillness that makes him impossible to tear your eye/eyes off. He doesn't utter a single word in the film and yet owns every frame of it. Now that's acting.
This is one of those films that remains difficult, if not impossible, to recommend. I have no doubt that it will displace some high-ranking films on a few of your best-of-the-year lists, but I can't think of a single customer I would/could recommend it to. I've stumbled upon a few of these this year and this might be the best example.... a near-great film that simply won't find an audience, because outside a bunch of our fellow coworkers, one may not exist.