Sunday, September 18, 2011

Valhalla Rising (Nicholas Winding Refn, 2009)

If one were to play the old "X meets Y" game of critical shorthand, one would have to plot Nicholas Winding Refn's Valhalla Rising along several other axes. Unequal parts Apocalypse Now, Aguirre and, of all things, Stalker (this reference actually supplied by the director), Valhalla Rising creates oneiric abstraction out of bluntly realistic primitivism. A far cry from the epic, glorious tone of swords-and-sandals films, Refn's meditation on the meeting point of barbarism and religious fervor depicts not the raw energy and codified nobility of man's first hints of civilization but of the unformed rage and atrocity that truly defined the early man. But then, the Greeks and the Romans came long before these Celts and Norsemen, and Refn leaves the social effects of early Christianity hanging in the air as we see a world far more primitive and savage than the supposed heathens who practiced their idolatry.

Divided into six parts, the film initially presents no story at all, and for a long stretch, no dialogue. Instead, we are treated the the sight of tattooed Viking slaves pounding each other into mulch for the amusement of their captors. Amusement may be the wrong word: unlike the cheering throngs of bloodthirsty Romans, these tribesmen watch their slaves beat, bash and strangle each other with impassivity, as if this were some kind of perfunctory act, just some way to pass the time. It almost looks like the barbaric equivalent of discussing the weather. Even the worrying proficiency of the slave One-Eye (Mads Mikkelsen) at destroying his opponents prompts little more than water-cooler chat, as it were. When One-Eye gets a hold of an arrowhead that allows him to break free of his bondage and slaughter his captors, their brief flashes of overwhelming fear mark the first emotional beat of the film.

This opening segment is the highlight of the film, a grim, muddy closed loop of clacking chains, howling wind and the wet thump of fist on flesh. No story arises from this first part, but then One-Eye has no use for a narrative. His only dramatic motivation is to stay alive, and if he has to snap a stranger, maybe even a fellow tribesman's, neck or beat in a head with a rock, he'll do it. Crystal clear imagery captures the craggy, desolate hells of untamed Britain with desaturated imagery, emphasizing the cold, black mud in which the slaves fight and the half-frozen, nutrient-less vegetation that clings to its own meaningless life in this foggy, frigid terrain. Only the modicum of kindness a boy shows to One-Eye alleviates this sense of overarching inhumanity, but not even that can do anything to soften the edges of this uncomfortably crisp view of brutality, a brutality that reaches its peak when One-Eye manages to free himself and take his revenge.

After One-Eye's escape, he and The Boy stumble across a band of Christian Crusaders looking to sail for the Holy Land. The clan's leader (Ewan Stewart) invites the two to come along, clearly desirous of One-Eye's strength. The chieftain even promises that the warrior's sins will be forgiven, ironically through yet more killing. This change of pace introduces something approaching a narrative into the film, but Valhalla Rising still moves on with its atmospheric drift. The cold sharpness of Britain's windswept hills gives way to a fog-drenched voyage at sea, mist obliterating visibility past a few feet. Refn alternates between a hallucinatory, brown-red tint that gives the fog a hellish hue and a silver-gray, ghostly luminescence, the obscured sun making everything bright but still obscured. Directionless and without food, the men begin to fear for their lives, and Refn shows the breakdown with cold precision. There are no screams of panic, merely whispers of curses and superstition, growled orders to dispatch those who might be dooming them all and swift, dispassionate defenses of the targeted blights.

When One-Eye's visions tell him they've reached fresh water, the fog dissipates and reveals not the arid sands of the Middle East but the coniferous expanse of the New World. But in a movie where fear and single-minded dedication to brutish life are the only concretes, the rich possibilities of this new land induce only panic and more superstitious infighting. Refn enhances this bewilderment and unease by stripping the lush terrain of game and fruit, leaving only leafy trees to blot out visibility, and to conceal territorial natives from the confused, vulnerable Vikings as the steady fall of arrows begins to confirm their belief that this mockingly fertile land is Hell itself.

Morten Søborg's cinematography, aided by the Red One camera's range of possibilities, finds a balance between Alexander Knyazhinsky's contrasting styles in Stalker: desaturated, tinted shots emphasize black mud and pallid flesh, but color bleeds in in dream-like fashion even before the stylistic shift when this ragtag group of Vikings reaches the New World. America naturally comes to resemble The Zone, a realm of beautiful color (though still slightly chilled, à la Stalker) that is as inviting as it is unsettling. But where Tarkovsky made his alien realm into a place where leaps of faith were the only way to survive, Refn's New World displays the inverse. Scared and desperate for a sign from God, the men ingest psychotropic drugs, which only further awakens their paranoia. Previously hallucinatory imagery brought out One-Eye's supernatural visions, but Refn does not resort to much trickery to show the breakdown, keeping a firm eye on the now-uninhibited flow of fanaticism and violence. Tarkovsky's Zone was the dangerous, testing path to Heaven, or at least spiritual self-realization. Refn's America is merely a place of death, an area so vast the controlling elements of religion escape into the expansive air and leave those who cling to it lost at sea. It's no wonder they prove more dangerous to each other than the hailstorm of shafts.

Refn clearly molds this film for maximum stylistic impact, and he makes as good a use of Peter Kyed's music as the cinematography. A score of noise rock and pre-Gregorian tonal chants, the music crafts moods of unformed, primal aggression, fear and surreal breaks from the diegetic world. Organ chords are held until they threaten to pulsate every civilized thought out of your head. Jagged, atonal feedback escalates the tension when the Crusaders begin to fall apart in their verdant Hell, walls of electric squall puncturing the mix just as the rain of arrows continues to pepper the Vikings. It is a defiantly anachronistic touch in a film that, unlike nearly all such medieval films, truly feels as if you've been dropped back in time with no way to return to modern comfort, yet it somehow seems appropriate. It captures the sound inside these men, formless textures of white noise, capturing not only their base, instinctual moods and motivations but the absence of any guiding voice save the one they insert into this wash themselves.

An opening title card reads, "In the beginning there was only man and nature. Men came bearing crosses and drove the heathen to the fringes of the Earth." Valhalla Rising posits that the heathen was driven to the fringes of the mind, not any geographical location. The only thing separating the converted Vikings and the native tribes is the natives' purity of violence. Without the awkward, often counterintuitive application of Christian soldier values to complicate fighting with guilt and self-righteousness, the indigenous warriors act on animal instinct alone. It's not a preferable way of being, of course, but Refn isn't out to show humanity's civilized side. For that, he'd need a woman.

1 comment:

  1. I saw this film on Tuesday just out of curiosity over Refn's work. It was the only film of his that was available on TV. Unfortunately, IFC has become a pretty lame channel that has commercials between films.

    Still, I was able to get into the story but I was more amazed by how Refn chose not to do things the easy way. He just really gets dirty with this film in terms of its landscapes and the actions that occur.

    I enjoyed watching it though I hope it will be on some other channel that doesn't show the film with commercials.