Monday, January 16, 2012

Movie Review : "Valhalla Rising" by David Pretty

All Hail, Warriors and Warri-ettes!

At the very least, Valhalla Rising proudly revels in the fact that film is a visual medium.  The producers tracked down some amazing locations, immersed their authentically-clad, grizzled actors in these stunning environments and then photographed the shit out of 'em.  It's as if Ken Burns did a documentary on bloodletting and evisceration.   

The trailer manages to convey this somewhat:    

Like a Dark Age-era UFC fighter, One-Eye (Mads Mikkelson) is hauled around the unspecified countryside by his cruel captors and forced to fight in endless hand-to-hand mortal combats.  Despite his notable lack of depth perception, the Nordic champion excels, parleying his savage hatred and lethal innovation into one stunning victory after another, often against overwhelming odds.

In addition to his prowess in battle, One-Eye seems to posses the gift of second sight.  He envisions a method of escape and when the prophecy comes true, his deliverance is suddenly at hand.  He proceeds to slaughter his taskmasters, only staying his hand against the young boy who fed and watered him in captivity.  Now allied, the two strike forth into the unknown together.

They soon encounter a pack of fervor-ridden Christians led by a Svengali type who persuades them to venture to the Holy Land where riches and absolution await.  After a grueling sea voyage that conjures up shades of Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner", this rag-tag crew finally arrives in a lush, temperate, arboreal wilderness that bears very little similarity to the arid lands of Jerusalem.       

It soon becomes glaringly apparent that they are not, in fact, in the Middle East, but in North America.  Undaunted, the crusade's fanatical overseer (Ewan Stewart) is determined to conquer this Brave New World in the name of Christ, but, as one might suspect, the phantasmal indigenous population has different thoughts on the matter.  Indeed, the film has a lot to say about the dangers of noble imperialism and how righteous, enlightened men can still wind up punctured and humbled.   

I'd love to have a dime for every time the once-artistic but now creatively bankrupt George Lucas has evoked the phrase "tone poem", especially in referencing his abysmal Star Wars prequels.  Well, except for a few brief promotional trailers, there is absolutely nothing in those films which even vaguely approximates a tone poem.  If Lucas wants to see what a genuine example of this is, I humbly suggest that he watch Valhalla Rising post-haste.

Right from the first few frames, this movie is arresting.  The craggy, fog-soaked barrens are a perfect backdrop to the actor's equally well-worn faces.  As the film unspools (at it's own damned pace, thank you!), cinematographer Morten Søborg and director Nicolas Winding Refn continue to locate and capture the most amazing visual panoplies.  Even during moments of limbo, such as the becalmed sequence at sea, they still rely on creative applications of color filters and lighting to evoke mood and atmosphere.

This is also used to great effect during One-Eye's visions, which are strikingly awash in red.  Since these half-glimpsed snippets are can either be startling, innocuous or downright foreboding they create a genuine imbalance in the viewer.  The frequent use of hand held cameras, lingering static shots and teeth-jangling music also helps to contribute to the film's unsettling qualities.

The film's authentic locations are augmented by some truly stellar make-up and costume work.  The apparel boasts a tremendous attention to detail, whether it be crude seam-stitching on a leather tunic or the hand-crafted rings which constitute a suit of armor.  One-Eye's mangled orbital socket is appropriately nasty-looking and there are some truly stomach-churning moments, including a graphic cranial breach, an abdominal unzipping and some poor bastard's melon getting piked.  One major demerit, however: the blatantly obvious arterial sprays of CGI blood make the normally quick n' dirty battle scenes resemble a Monty Python skit.         

Mads Mikkelson (who played the equally creepy Le Chiffre in Casino Royale) is perfect as One-Eye.  It's as if James Woods and William Fichtner had a child together but it was taken away from them, imprisoned in a Vietnamese tiger cage, tortured, starved and then forced to join a medieval Fight Club.  Some folks might argue that having no dialogue would make this role a cakewalk, but I don't agree.  It's challenging to project bad-assery merely from presence alone.  Mikkelson is so intensely quiet and lethally explosive that he's easily included in that hallowed pantheon of mute screen antiheroes who come with a NOT TO BE FUCKED WITH warning sticker.

The main character's slack-jawed ways conveniently dove-tail with the presence of young Maarten Stevenson as The Boy.  Somehow having this squinty, long haired, blonde moppet interpreting One-Eye's thoughts like a prepubescent Oracle is a helluva lot creepier then having One-Eye speak for himself.  Their's is an interesting dynamic, conjuring up shades of Lone Wolf and Cub.  Stevenson gives a remarkably aware performance and both he and his stoic ward move through this dark and miserable world like Mad(s) Max and the Feral Kid in The Road Warrior.

They get ample help from the supporting cast.  Ewan Stewart's General is like a medieval Republican who's convictions are only based on mindless rapture and personal hubris.  Gary Lewis is great as The Priest, occasionally betraying a fanatical flicker of madness from time to time.  Alexander Morton is also wonderfully deadpan as The Chieftain.        

I have to temper my praise with one nagging gripe:  I really wish the producers had hired an all-Scandinavian cast.  With so much effort put into the film's authenticity it just seems weird that the film-makers didn't consider this to be relevant.  I know the Vikings landed and settled in parts of Scotland, but with character names like Hagen, Eirik, Gudmond I'd still expect them to sound like Max Von Sydow instead of Billy Connolly.     

Honestly, everything else I'm about to say is just a symptom of unrealistically escalated audience expectations.  If you're looking for pitched battles and a script seeded with strategically placed action beats, don't bother watching Valhalla Rising.  If your level of satisfaction after watching a film is in direct proportion to how contrived the Hollywood-approved bow-tie ending is, look elsewhere.  If you're allergic to the concept of film as art, then just keep watching Van Helsing and Zookeeper.    

On the other hand, if you like elemental movie-making, have some semblance of an attention span and don't mind drifting down an Apocalypse Now-style lazy river of weird and unconventional visual delights, Valhalla Rising is your kind of picaresque adventure.

.      Tilt: up.  


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