Valhalla Rising, directed by Nicolas Winding Refn and starring Mads Mikkelsen, is a 2009 dark adventure drama about…
…okay, seriously, what is this movie even about?
Just to be clear, I enjoyed this movie quite a bit. The cinematography is beautiful and very Japanese in the sense of Refn using a lot of white space or negative space in his shots, and in fact, after doing some research, I discovered that part of Refn’s inspiration for this film came from his love of Akira Kurosawa’s samurai films.
It’s a little odd saying that the film style is very Japanese because this movie is very much about VIKINGS!!! YEAH!!!
Mads Mikkelsen, who delivers a phenomenal performance in this movie, plays a very mysterious person… we don’t really know anything about him, the other characters don’t really know anything about him… all we know is that he’s being kept prisoner in a cage like an animal, and that his captors are using him basically like a dog in a fight ring because this guy is vicious, he’s brutal, he practically is a wild animal, he’s missing an eye, he’s unnaturally strong and, most importantly, he never makes a sound. I’m not kidding, Mads Mikkelsen never makes a single noise throughout this entire film. He’s completely silent. Even without any dialogue though, he is absolutely mesmerizing to watch, and in my opinion he consistently gives some of the most nuanced performances, more I think than almost any other actor working today. He’s just unbelievably hypnotizing, and he’s by far the heart and guts of this entire film.
So eventually Mikkelsen makes a very violent escape and heads out on his own, only to find that this little boy, who was also a slave of these people, is following him, and so just sort of out of circumstance they travel together and end up coming across a group of vikings headed for the Crusades in the Holy Land.
These guys talk a lot about being Christians and being God’s warriors and finding wealth and land and forgiveness by fighting in Jerusalem and… yeah, it’s kind of obvious from the moment we first see them, due to the pile of burned bodies they’re standing around that there’s a lot about them that isn’t really Christian at all.
They invite Mads Mikkelsen and the boy, who’s started calling the warrior “One Eye,” to join them on their journey to the Holy Land, and they do because I guess what else are they going to do?
So they get on a viking longship and for about ten minutes the movie turns very “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”… they’re lost at sea, there’s no wind, they’re completely surrounded by this thick fog for days and days, people start dying from starvation and dehydration, they begin to suspect that One Eye has put a pagan curse on their ship…
…until eventually they end up someplace that is definitely not the Middle East. In fact it’s heavily implied that they’ve gone in the complete opposite direction, and that they’re now somewhere in North America.
Well, things go from bad to worse.
The leader of the vikings starts ranting about building a “New Jerusalem,” which he keeps calling “MY New Jerusalem”…
They find what looks like the remains of human sacrifices…
There’s a very Dante’s Inferno-esque scene where all the crusaders start disintegrating into different kinds of evils…
A few of them start suspecting that One Eye is actually the devil incarnate…
And eventually they all die. …Yeah, it’s pretty bleak.
I’ve done a lot of searching on the internet trying to figure out what in the world this movie is supposed to be about, and it seems pretty open for interpretation. There’s very clearly some heavy symbolism going on here, and the most important question is, Who is One Eye?
There seem to be some pretty strong implications throughout the movie that One Eye has some sort of connection with Odin, the king of the gods in Norse Mythology. If you know anything about Norse Mythology, you know that Odin has one eye, he’s a warrior, and he sometimes travels around the world in disguise.
One of the things that’s really obvious from Mads Mikkelsen’s performance is that this guy isn’t completely human. There’s something otherworldly or supernatural about him, so to say that he might be supposed to represent Odin in some way, shape, or form isn’t too much of a stretch.
This seems to be the general consensus online when it comes to interpreting this movie. One Eye represents Norse paganism, the Crusaders are the Christians who came in and started converting people by the sword, and it’s the triumph of Nature over Mankind’s arrogance.
I think that there’s more to it than that.
It’s undeniable that there are certain parallels between One Eye and Odin, and I think there are supposed to be, but where this movie really threw me was at the very end, One Eye sacrifices himself to save the boy from a group of natives who have been hunting them.
Again, this movie is very up in the air as far as how people want to interpret it, but what I see when I watch this movie is a really compelling character reversal.
See, we start out with the pagan warrior and the Christian Crusaders, but by the end of the movie, it’s painfully clear that One Eye is the good guy, the protector, and the Crusaders are the true pagans.
One part of this film that I haven’t mentioned yet is that it’s broken up under six separate headings, one of which is “Hell.” This is where we see the Crusaders all break down in different ways, and as I said before it’s a very Dante’s Inferno/Circles of Hell kind of sequence.
There’s a really unsettling bit where the leader of the Crusaders is on his hands and knees in the river praying, but he’s looking at his own reflection in the water as he does.
Also, there’s a completely out of nowhere rape which is supposed to show how absolutely consumed these people have become by their own evil, and… I guess it does that really well… *shudder*
One Eye is the only person whom this doesn’t seem to affect, and he spends the entire scene building a cairn. He also has visions throughout the movie that show him what’s about to happen, and during this scene he foresees what we later find out is his own death, so presumably he’s building his own burial marker.
There’s a definite sense of judgment to this seen, as if the characters really are experiencing Hell, and there’s also a very real feeling that One Eye has actually brought them there in order to show them who they really are.
It’s the kid of all people who realizes that One Eye is the only one who can lead them out of “Hell”. Those who stay behind die still consumed by their sins. Those who follow him also die from their wounds soon after, but there’s a sense of redemption to their deaths, and in the end, again, One Eye gives up his life in order to save the boy (the only one left) from being murdered by the natives.
Here’s the other reason why I don’t think One Eye can be a strict metaphor (or actual incarnation) of Odin: this movie is called Valhalla Rising. In Viking culture, you get to Valhalla by dying in battle. One Eye, on the other hand, actually drops his weapons when he surrenders his life to the natives. If this were supposed to be Odin, that would not make any sense whatsoever.
The way that it all turns out makes rising to Valhalla a metaphor for redemption and new life, paid for by someone who willingly sacrifices himself for others.
Now, I highly doubt that a Christ-metaphor was what the director was going for here. In fact I’m almost certain that it’s supposed to be about what most people think it’s supposed to be about: the victory of Nature over Man. Be that as it may, I can’t get past the extraordinary reversal, or at least I think it’s extraordinary, that the film makes of luring you into think that this almost supernatural character is supposed to be Odin, but ends up being more like Jesus, while the supposed “Christians” end up exposed as evil at heart.
Regardless of whether you buy this interpretation or not, this movie is a fantastically dark Viking-themed film with art house quality, extraordinary atmospheric and visual storytelling and an outstanding performance from Mads Mikkelsen. If you’re in the mood for a stunning work of cinema that’ll make you think, pour yourself a horn of mead and enjoy.