Expectations have substantially cooled on Nicolas Winding Refn’s follow-up to last year’s brilliant Bronson, but those accustomed to his art-house sensibility/ visceral action fusions will find something original in Valhalla Rising. Refn’s brutal film shares less with conventional Viking flicks than the atavistic mood of Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, Wrath of God.
After their successful collaboration on the first two Pusher films, Refn returns to Mads Mikkelsen (Casino Royale, Clash of the Titans) to play One Eye, a sinewy, tattooed warrior first introduced in slavery to a Norse chieftain. One Eye’s imprisonment is a temporary affair, and after an extremely bloody escape, he falls in with a group of Scottish pilgrims. Their high-minded mission across the sea leads One Eye into a plotless, hallucinatory mess of dirt, squalor, madness and death.
Rumours that Refn would be watering down his uncompromising vision for a mainstream audience for this long gestated project prove false. Valhalla Rising is a difficult, surprisingly meditative but ultimately rewarding slice of historical ultra-realism.
As with Bronson, Refn is more than ready to get inside the head of a man whose vision is regularly clouded by a volcanic dust cloud of vengeful fury, and Mikkelsen is up to the task of immersing himself in the role. Unfortunately, the locally sourced supporting cast is less convincing, saddled with over-enunciated delivery that grates in comparison with One-Eye’s menacing silence. As uncompromising, unsentimental and deliberately unlovable as its central character, Valhalla Rising is strong meat for those who can take it.
Cameo, Edinburgh and selected release from Fri 30 Apr. Available on DVD and Blu-ray from Mon 10 May (Momentum).