Valhalla Rising is frustrating in the fact that its first act is so strong, characters only speak when necessary, the bolster of the studio system is gone, and it is filmed with an extremely competent lens. In Valhalla Rising’s third act, the momentum is all but gone from the film. The viewer is reduced to watching characters literally wander around in the wild.
The film almost begins as a character study of its protagonist – Norse warrior One-Eye (Mads Mikkelsen) – in 1000 AD. Described as “driven by hate. It’s how he survives, why he never loses,” by the chief of his Pagan captives and jailers. One-Eye is a man so vicious he has to be chained twenty-four hours a day and whom everyone fears. No one will go within arms reach of him at any time, save for a small boy, Are (Maarten Stevenson). One-Eye is a living, breathing wild animal in captivity, showcased in many combat scenes that he glides through on the experience of a veteran warrior.
The surrealism dream sequences of One-Eye do not really advance the film all that much. Possibly used to explain what is going on in his head since he never speaks by another director, director Nicolas Windinf Refn uses them as artistic dalliances. Most are just there existing – like the rootless characters in this film – until the viewer comes to the film’s third act. At that point, the daydream sequences transform or could always be seen as premonitions of the near future.
In Valhalla Rising, one religious belief system is on its way out, another is beginning. The Pagans are outnumbered by the fanatical Christians whose belief in Christ has been transmogrified into them performing heinous acts in his and the new religion’s name. Refn shows blood splattered Christians next to heaps of burned male corpses – presumably Pagans – while the Pagan women have been stripped naked, huddled together, crosses planted in the ground all around. This was a great scene showing the dark side of religion, similar to the numerous religious travesties found in Amenábar’s Agora. In this scene, the viewer fills in the details from what they see, they are not told nor are the horrors enumerated.
Nicolas Windinf Refn’s Valhalla Rising is an action/warrior film that starts out great then goes nowhere. The character of One-Eye is well-constructed and acted but he is given nothing to do but react, mostly with extreme and horrific violence, to stimuli placed in front of him. There is no evolution or growth in him (not even through his blonde mouthpiece Are) or in any character in the film. One-Eye deserved a better movie.