It would make sense that creating a brutal, no-brainer medieval movie, with tons of clanking swords, stabbings, bludgeoning, grunting, and minimal dialogue would be simple and not require either a big budget or a level of acting above say, the Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle Cyborg. You’d be wrong of course; otherwise there would be much better recent examples than the clunky and incoherent attempts such as Pathfinder and Outlander, both of which are weighed down by sentimentality and over plotting. Perhaps if the master of sleazy, satirical, expensive exploitation, Paul Verhoeven (who had already made the medieval action movie Flesh and Blood), had been allowed to make Crusade back in 1995 with Arnold Schwarzenegger, this genre might have a better reputation. But instead of Crusade, Carolco Pictures (Basic Instinct, Total Recall, Terminator 2) decided to finance Renny Harlin’s Cutthroat Island, which effectively bankrupted them. The Crusade script has still never been made.
Now Nicholas Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising is not Crusade, it has no name actors, it’s clearly shot on a low budget, and the story is almost purely metaphorical, but it’s a close approximation, even if it was unintentional. Refn’s movie has the religious underpinnings that a film about the Crusades would have; his one-eyed mute lead character (played by Mads Mikkelson) follows a group seeking the holy land, leading to a beautiful and theoretically deserted island. Mikkelson plays a slave forced to beat other slaves to death, all to the tentative amusement of their captors, a group of nomads who believe in multiples gods and hate Christians.
It’s also a movie, shot beautifully on HD cameras, that is broken up into pretentiously named chapters (“Silent Warrior”), like a feel-bad Lars Von Trier film, and yet is cast with guys who either look like Ron Perlman* or extras from Bumfights. The incessant ominous mysticism that Refn tries to layer onto Valhalla Rising is ridiculous; the movie might work as a comedy with a little musical tweaking and the characters more talkative. We’re really in Blind Fury territory, with less humor, but with a feral kid interpreting and being protected by the Nordic Brute (in the case of Blind Fury it was Rutger Hauer).
Perhaps sensing he can’t just play his movie completely seriously, Refn has some funny moments sprinkled throughout Valhalla Rising , such as when the religious leader of a group who believe they have discovered an island states righteously “we claim this land in the name of God!” And his cohort responds, “how are we gonna do that?”
And yet, Valhalla Rising sticks with you, partially because of its pounding score that sounds like an earthquake rumbling in your ears and because Refn insists on treating the situations in a realistic fashion. On the boat to the “holy land,” the crew has no idea of where to go and their delusions combined with their confused religious fear has them making all sorts of foolish proclamations, and no one is magically saved by a deus ex machina. When the feral child (one of the few missteps, this blond moppet is the only note of sentimentality in the movie) cries out that he wants to go home, when he’s asked where that is, he doesn’t know. When the group believes they’ve found the holy land, their ill-advised search is constantly disrupted by an outside force and they begin to turn on each other (including a chase sequence in a large field that looks exactly like the locations for Cornel Wilde’s The Naked Prey). These characters aren’t too bright, and there’s no truly intelligent person amongst them to lead them in the right direction, which would have been an easy way out for Refn.
Instead, Refn doesn’t bother with answers and so there are long passages where you have to appreciate the desolate land and the quick striking battles filled with gore. He’s made a movie that doesn’t amount to anything at all (as he did with the infinitely less satisfying Fear X); it’s a lot of staring at Mikkelson and trying to figure out what he’s thinking. I may be alone on this, but I believe he was probably trying to come up with a hearty recipe for clam chowder.