Valhalla Rising – DVD Review

Like different pieces of art, movies can have a different effect on each person. One may see a film as a beautifully shot, mesmerizing artistic vision, while another may view it as boring and ineffective, with wafer-thin characters and no real direction. This is the case with Valhalla Rising, the latest film by Director Nicolas Winding-Refn, which takes place in 1,000 A.D. and tells the story of One-Eye (Mads Mikkelsen), a mute warrior that’s been held captive for years, and is forced to battle other slaves day in and day out for the pleasure of their captors.

The film is told in six parts, with each chapter being scarce with dialogue, relying more on the atmosphere, actions on screen and the viewers personal interpretations of what’s going on to move the story forward. The film begins with various battles, and One-Eye taking out two, or three opponents at the same time, proving that he’s the best there is at what he does. Soon the opportunity presents itself and he escapes from his captors, along with a young boy (Maarten Stevenson) who, from what’s presented to us up to this point, brought One-Eye food from time to time, and was just intrigued by the man in general.

The two set off on a journey to nowhere in particular, and eventually come across a group of Christian warriors, who ask the two to join them on their quest to find the Holy Land, where they will be forgiven for all they have done, and be able to join the group fighting under God’s forgiving hand. With nowhere else to go, they agree, or at least the boy does, as he speaks for them both, and they soon find themselves on a small ship with the religious warriors, hoping to find a place in the world. The problem is, that things start to go wrong once a thick, unending fog rolls in, and what awaits them when it does finally clear may be the exact opposite of the Holy Land in which they seek.

This is one of those films that some will absolutely love, and others will completely despise, with very few being found in the middle. There will also be a great deal of people who think those who don’t like it, don’t like it because it’s “too smart” for them, and that they should go back to watching Steven Segal movies. I’ve never liked that argument, as someone not liking a film that others view as the pinnacle of what film-making should be doesn’t automatically mean they have bad taste, nor does it mean that those who like it are experts in film.

Valhalla Rising does some things right, but overall, I found it to be incredibly slow paced, with not enough happening in order to make me feel satisfied with the time I spent with the film by the time it finished. This doesn’t mean I wished for explosions every other minute, or constant action, I just felt that the characters were underdeveloped, leaving me to not care what happened to any of them; and the film, at times, was being overly artistic in an attempt to cover up some of these weaker elements.

The visuals and landscapes are beautiful, and the overall look of the film comes through just as Winding-Refn no doubt wanted. The costumes are great, and the sets also get the job done, and the few fight scenes there are at the start of the film are also well choreographed. The acting job done by Mikkelsen, who’s likely known to most in North America as James Bond’s nemesis Le Chiffre from Casino Royale, is top notch for what he‘s given to work with, as he shows the brute strength, and abilities of his character without a single line of dialogue in the entire film. At the same time, One-Eye suffers from the same problem the rest of the one-dimensional characters suffer from, and that’s there’s just no real reason to root for him because he has no true end goal, or personality.

Not all films need to spoon-feed the audience all the answers, yet at the same time, when all is said and done, this film is incredibly underwhelming. There are a lot of implications as to what’s going on, and religious undertones about who One-Eye actually is, and what’s actually happening on his journey, but the slow pacing will definitely turn a lot of people off before they even begin to delve into the deeper meaning of anything going on.

In the end, Valhalla Rising will pull people in with its stylish looks, and seeming promise of a gladiator-esque Viking story, yet those who go in looking for that will be sorely disappointed. The film isn’t all bad, and I don’t doubt that it will garner a following with its almost poetic attempt at storytelling; however, it falls short of having the impact it seemed to be aiming for, or could have had with a bit more work and direction.

The film has a very dark, dreary atmospheric tone to it, and it comes through that way exactly. The video, presented in 2.25:1 widescreen, looks solid, with few scenes looking washed out, and no real complaints. The landscape shots from afar look fantastic, and really make the area look desolate, and unforgiving. The audio also works well, and is 5.1 Dolby Digital. With an incredibly small amount of dialogue, the film’s sound effects, and musical score help push things along, and there are no complaints to be had in this department either.

The Making of Valhalla Rising – This featurette is roughly 23 minutes long, and shows various location shots, as well as interviews with the director, director’s assistant and crew. Reen talks about wanting to shoot in the worst conditions possible for his films, and he felt he got to do that with this one. It’s a decent addition, for such a small film, and those who enjoy the film may want to check this out.

Valhalla Rising could have been a memorable film, with a bit better pacing, and a bit more character development on all levels. While sometimes characters play second fiddle to the themes in a film, it still usually helps to have a protagonist who the viewer wants to route for, instead of a group of characters you aren’t affected by on any level.

Nicolas Winding-Refn Presents a Dimbus Film Production Valhalla Rising. Directed by: Nicolas Winding-Refn. Starring: Mads Mikkelsen, Marrten Stevenson. Running time: 92 minutes. Rating: 14A. Released on DVD: November 30, 2010.

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