A thousand years ago. One-Eye (Mads Mikkelsen), an enigmatic, mute warrior-slave, is freed from captivity and falls in with a party of Christian Vikings who set out for the Holy Land but cross the wrong sea and reach America, where they are overwhelmed by the vast land and its potentially hostile inhabitants.
Following the Pusher trilogy and Bronson, Nicolas Winding Refn — Denmark’s second-most committed auteur — turns away from contemporary criminality to deliver a dream of a Viking movie. Valhalla Rising is not the exercise in action-oriented ethnography we might expect from Mel Gibson (who has his own Norseploitation movie in the works) or a tricked-up genre film like Pathfinder (which it slightly echoes) or Outlander, but a hallucinatory, fable-like extrapolation from a single historical fact — a pile of stones on the Delaware shore, well away from where the rumoured Norse settlements in North America were supposed to be.
Mads Mikkelsen, with no dialogue, has to play a mystic archetype, and emerges as a monolithic screen presence, following his Casino Royale villain with another wonky-eye turn — a tethered god of violence who has psychic flashes of horrors to come. One-Eye is the film’s lead, and an emotional tie with a boy (Maarten Stevenson) who becomes his sidekick marks him as a hero, but he could as easily be an immortal trickster guiding this band of venal, violent pilgrims to a realm where they can be appropriately punished. Shot in spectacular Scotland, Valhalla Rising has a gorgeous deep-focus look which harks back to the Vincent Ward of The Navigator and the Tarkovsky of Andrei Rublev. Here, the past is alien and hostile terrain, with people reduced to brutal, impulsive behaviour because their environment, while breathtaking, is unbearably savage.
A cast of battered-looking Vikings show frozen faces in close-up, but are mostly here to die in a horrible manner — felled by arrows, disembowelled with axes, smitten by the elements. But it’s a slow, reflective film which builds from small physical details to a transcendent vision: Refn’s crime movies are theatrical and shot through with fantasy, and this isn’t an overly literal slice of horrible history. Many won’t have patience for it, but it will pick up devotees who’ll watch it over and over.
Valhalla Rising gets into your mind and stays there. You can argue what, if anything, its trying to say, but it is impressive cinema.