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“Valhalla Rising” (2009) Review

Valhalla Rising poster

If I said the name Nicolas Winding Refn, many of you would not recognize it at all. Those that do would likely recognize him as a talented director with a penchant for highly violent films – the most recent of which was “Drive”, for which Refn won a Best Director award at Cannes. After seeing “Drive”, and after having “Valhalla Rising” on my radar for a while now, I was expecting a quality film. Calling “Valhalla Rising” simply a quality film, though, does not do this wonderful film justice.

As a note of warning, “Valhalla Rising” is quite graphic in its violence – those with weak stomachs (for those who have seen the film, no pun intended) may be put off and quit after the film’s first section.

To start, the plot of “Valhalla Rising” features both a straightforward story that is deeper than meets the eye, along with a heavy emphasis on its characters. The voyage of the captive warrior, One-Eye, and his boy companion is quite gripping – its qualities quickly brought to mind “The Road” for me. This story is presented in six parts with each part bringing One-Eye closer to his ultimate fate. The blending of Norse mythology, Christian crusades, and human conflict creates a tense backdrop for the film’s characters to interact. While it may be hard to follow at times, the plot is rewarding for those who pay attention (Film-watching note: One-Eye shares similar traits and characteristic with a certain Norse god).

The most amazing thing about how the plot operates in “Valhalla Rising” is how little dialogue takes place in the film – One-Eye actually does not speak a single word throughout the film. Yet, the story is able to stay cohesive and characters express so much with this minimal dialogue.

Despite this minimal dialogue there is still a constant soundscape present courtesy of the well-crafted, foreboding soundtrack. The soundtrack varies from ambient to droning to distorted, heavy guitar, all capturing and enhancing each moment of One-Eye’s voyage. Though there is a lack of set, composed pieces, I will say that this is an incredible soundtrack that perfectly matches the piece it is accompanying.

Even without speaking a single word for the entire film, Mads Mikkelsen still manages to bring the character of One-Eye to life.

Even without speaking a single word for the entire film, Mads Mikkelsen still manages to bring the character of One-Eye to life.

Coming back around to the characters, I have to give credit to the entire cast for really working well with the minimal dialogue script. Mads Mikkelsen, as One-Eye, offers a particularly good performance, connecting the viewer to his character without saying a word. Maarten Stevenson also does a nice job as The Boy, again bringing back a memory of Kodi Smit-McPhee in “The Road”.

Lastly, I could not finish this review with talking about one of the film’s best qualities, its visual presentation. From the camera work, to the use of color filters, to some beautiful scenery, Refn has created an outstanding visual feast for this film. Some intense color saturation and perfectly positioned characters and lighting among the surrounding make for some great scenes that really show Refn’s skill as a director. This is definitely one of the most visually-creative films I’ve seen in a while.

There are few films that can get away with some of the design choices for “Valhalla Rising”, yet Refn manages to put so many high quality pieces together to make a tense, foreboding action film. Despite its slow pace and occasional self-indulgence, “Valhalla Rising” is a very well put together film. Those looking for a film heavy on the action and violence will be lost by the midway point as the film moves at a slow pace compared to any mainstream action film. Those who enjoy stylish visuals and a character-driven plot, though, will surely enjoy this film, along with any fans of Refn or those looking for an interesting adventure film.

Final Score: 8.5/10

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