Valhalla Rising has been in my Netflix recommended movies list practically since I started an account. I put it off for quite a while, deterred by the two stars it had listed from the user reviews. I didn’t bother looking into why it might have such a low rating; I just assumed it was some B-movie with shitty effects and a terrible plot.
Fast forward to a week ago. My friend Aaron is talking about one of his favorite movies: Only God Forgives. As he explains the genius behind the movie and the terrible critical reception it garnered, he name-dropped Valhalla Rising as another movie by this gifted — but misunderstood — director, Nicolas Winding Refn. I was surprised, sure. But a few days later, when we had a few hours to spare, we decided to watch it. It was a great decision.
Valhalla Rising, as the title and thumbnail image might imply, has to do with medieval Vikingish stuff happening in Scotland. The narrative follows a silent warrior referred to as One-Eye (because, shocker, he only has one eye) and a small boy who tags along on his adventures. While the history is a little off (a movie set in 1000 AD, yet has Crusaders heading to Jerusalem even though the first Crusade wasn’t called until 1095, e.g.), the world Refn composes for One-Eye and the boy to explore is rich and fantastically realized through the cinematography and soundscaping. The closest thing I can compare it to is The New World by Terrence Malick — another beautifully cinematic slog through history.
I think the average viewer, without a base patience for “art” cinema, might become quickly frustrated with the meandering, loosely explained plot and sparse dialogue. The two stars on Netflix are presumably testament to this sentiment. Huge portions of the movie pass with no speaking, instead focusing on visual storytelling (or failing that, just visuals). Yet there is a magic in the landscapes and the silent trek of One-Eye and his fellows as their journey takes unexpected twists. Excellent use of practical effects, especially in creating the visceral bouts of violence that dot the narrative, further strengthens the cinematic value of Valhalla Rising.
I highly recommend the movie, but enter it with patience and an openness to let Refn do his thing. While it doesn’t have some of the traditional aspects of enjoyable movie watching, it has plenty of virtues of its own.