Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn follows up his remarkable biopic Bronson by reuniting with fellow Dane Mads Mikkelsen, the star of the first two films in his epic "Pusher" trilogy. If we read Bronson as a true crime story presented as a grand opera, then his Viking drama, Valhalla Rising, is Andrei Tarkovsky's take on Conan the Barbarian with a dash of austerity à la Carl Dreyer. Refn has a small group of U.S. film fans thanks to Bronson, the Pusher films and the little-seen Fear X, starring John Turturro as a husband searching for his wife's killer. Valhalla Rising, a dreamlike journey story with brutal scenes of violence separated by tranquil passages of landscape photography, will cement Refn's status as a rising world auteur. However, box office will be modest when IFC Films releases the film late summer. Arthouse regulars will be reluctant to check out a Viking adventure no matter the reputation of the filmmaker. At the same time, Valhalla Rising is too artful, too Ingmar Bergman, for action fans that would appreciate the bloody man-to-man combat throughout the movie.
Leaders from two rival Viking clans come together on a misty coastline to watch their best fighters battle each other in a win-or-die tournament. Caged like a wild animal, the mysterious One Eye (Mikkelsen) leaps into action and finishes off all comers in brutal fashion. With a young boy who acts as his interpreter, One Eye joins a group of Christian crusaders heading by sea to the Holy Land for a chance to create the New Jerusalem. After a difficult journey, they arrive at a land of thick woods vastly different from their home, where an unseen enemy is waiting.
Mikkelson, best known to mainstream audiences for his villainous role in Casino Royale and to specialty audiences for Open Hearts, does a lot with the slow turn of his head and the gaze from his one remaining eye. Mikkelson plays a silent warrior, making great use of his steely presence. As One Eye, Mikkelson is often still, watching the drama unfold around him. In the film's frequent explosions of action, One Eye leaps up and kills the men around him, finishing off the last with an ax to the back. The fight is often between One Eye and a large group of men but by early into the movie we know that the odds favor One Eye.
While Valhalla Rising is too challenging to expand Refn's North American audience, it will continue to cement his world master status to serious specialty film fans. Valhalla Rising will also serve as a persuasive calling card for Refn who shows talent and artistry for telling stories on an epic canvas. Re-teaming with Morten Søborg, the camerman from his Pusher films, Refn makes powerful use of blood red dream sequences and lingering shots of fog-covered Scandinavian landscapes. Refn may have a silent hero in Valhalla Rising but he compensates with amazing audio effects of a whipping wind, whizzing arrows and the clang of metal chains and wooden cages. Not since Christopher Nolan has a specialty talent shown promise when it comes to large-scale Hollywood moviemaking. Imagine what Refn can do with a Hollywood production (plans are underway for Refn to direct a heist movie with Mikkelsen in the lead). While the majority of moviegoers in the U.S. will discover Refn's films via VOD and other media platforms, one hopes that audiences will seek out Valhalla Rising in cinemas. Few filmmakers embrace big-screen scale like Refn.
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Cast: Mads Mikkelsen, Jamie Sives, Gary Lewis, Douglas Russell and Maarten Stevenson
Screenplay: Roy Jacobsen and Nicolas Winding Refn
Producer: Henrik Danstrup, Bo Ehrhardt and Johnny Andersen
Running time: 90 min
Release date: July 16 limited