Any literature nerd worth his salt gets a little turned on by the name “One-Eye”—it conjures images of the mighty Cyclops and even that heralded monocular of yore, Odin. You can understand my excitement, then, as trailers began emerging for Nicolas Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising, a film seemingly spiced with allusions to religious warfare between ancient pagan religions and Christians at the dawn of England’s evangelism. A mysterious man with a single eye pitted against impending Christian hordes—the last and strongest of the Norse gods forced to make a final stand, to fight for his very existence. Epic battles and philosophical quandaries—maybe even an intellectual bent on the whole thing, providing the general public a better understanding of Christianity’s tainting of pagan texts like Beowulf and older sagas. There’s even an elderly crusader bedecked in chain mail and a scruffy white beard who proclaims himself “God”—and for the sake of every popular artist’s rendition, looks every bit the part. This was it–a clash of religions old and new, set against a historic backdrop largely overlooked today. It was my English Majory wet dream.
But alas. It was not to be. Refn’s film says few things about man and religion, focusing instead on brainings and evisceration. The film is split into five chapters, each cryptically (and foolishly) titled things like “ CHAPTER III: MEN OF GOD”. The first sets us up, revealing “One Eye” (Mads Mikkelsen) as a heathen tribe’s captive warrior—he’s never lost a “wrestling” match in his life, making him a valuable asset to the betting tribes. After being traded from one band to another, the man breaks free and, of course, murders his captors. This brings us to act two, where the Cyclops runs across several Christian crusaders circled around a group of dirty, naked women. These ladies are never explained, and the crusaders take One Eye in as their own, despite his continued silence. Indeed, the protagonist supposedly “speaks” through his child companion Are (Maarten Stevenson), though this is never a sure thing. For all we know, the protagonist simply has a penchant for staring longingly at the young boy—a tender pedophilia confused for telepathy by the evangelicals. Together, the heathen and Christians set off by boat to “take back the holy land”: Jerusalem. Unfortunately, the group runs afoul some mist during their voyage and end up marooned on some hellish alien landscape. As this weird band of warriors attempts to figure out where they’ve landed, an unknown evil threatens their every step—either they stay where they are and claim it in the name of God, or seek escape through the nearby woods.
There are at least twenty awkward close-ups of people staring off into the distance, soliloquizing vague and ominous things like “The boy said he’s from hell—maybe that’s where we’re going” and “I had a dream like this once—where I was wandering around alive; turned out I was dead”. The gothy script is only enhanced by crappy Adobe Photoshop lighting effects; apparently rather than shoot on a rainy day, the director chose to film “around” the sun—that is, fiddle with the brightness and contrast levels so that EVERYTHING ON SCREEN looks muddy, from the rolling hillsides to Andrew Flanagan’s goofy face. The worst part of all, though, is the missed opportunity. Valhalla Rising had the potential to be something special—a statement on the death of a religion at the hands of another; a rumination on the death of a god, told through the voice of a culture that once held him dear. What we get instead is pure existentialism—whichever man is strongest earns the most followers—thus denying viewers whatever meaning the film’s loaded allusions meant to suggest. What could have been a showdown of theological proportions turns out to be the story of some crusty old outcasts who happen to land on a rock and get killed by Indians. That’s right. Indians. I can’t think of a less logical way to end this flick, but there you have it. It’s a stupid little movie, heavy on skull mashing and disemboweling, low on dialogue and emotion. It promises a lot, follows through on little, and means nothing.