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Valhalla Rising – A Review

Is it fury that makes a man? It would explain why boys’ video games are all about killing, and girls’ video games are all about being kind to horses. Pre-video game, men took violent inspiration from nature. Now it’s obvious why men have such fury. The unpaved world, the one lacking in concrete, is a savage place. Big spaces aren’t peaceful; they howl for blood. Hills and fields are, by nature, indifferent to suffering. Timelessness does it. A hill stays a hill for eons, grass grows and grows. Why should the earth care for us? We only expect it to be humane because we’ve humanised it. Old peoples, like the Vikings, knew not to expect much. You’re born, you fight. Valhalla Rising is about a man who fights well.

“In the beginning,” say the opening credits, “there was only man and nature. Men came bearing crosses and drove the heathen to the fringes of the earth.” One particular heathen is a Viking named One-Eye. He is a captive of a Scottish Clan. He never speaks. His whole life is about beating men to death for sport. One day, he uses an arrowhead to disembowel his captors. A tow-headed boy sees him butcher everyone, and is entranced. Together, One-Eye and the boy embark on a journey. Along the way, they encounter Christians bound for the Holy Land. The Christians, seeing One-Eye as a great warrior, invite him to join their quest. He doesn’t accept or decline. He never speaks. Instead, he guides them to Hell.

This is the most masculine movie I’ve ever seen. Men are its sole concern. There’s one scene where you see a group of naked women huddled next a rock, but that’s about it for femininity. One-Eye and his buddies are not going to shower and wear that nice shirt their girlfriend picked out for them. Their girlfriends are most likely dead. The world, as One-Eye knows it, is barbarous. People seem to stab each other by way of “hello”. One-Eye guts men, he cleaves them, he rips out their throats, spews brains from out men’s skulls, and yet…he’s also a father figure. Maybe he’s even an appropriate father figure. “Sensitive” children are probably used for kindling in One-Eye’s world. Perhaps he was a Viking who, as a boy, liked flowers and nice fragrances…and had to learn the hard way. He never speaks, so it’s hard to be sure. As a father, he teaches death.

Mads Mikkelsen has one expression in this movie, and it ain’t dainty. He looks like he eats eyeballs. He’s so far from the effete, blood-weeping nancy boy he played in Casino Royale that you thank God (on James Bond’s behalf) that Bond didn’t have to fight One-Eye, because One-Eye would have worn Bond’s face for a hat. There isn’t a part of him that isn’t scarred, or tattooed. Even his eye has a scar! Scotsmen fear him! (That’s like stalactites being afraid of you). He’s angrier than a welt. And yet, he seems to be searching for something. He agrees to go to a new world. The boy is his son the moment he sets eye on him. He is open to nature – his, men’s, nature’s nature – where others are false. War does not offer him glory.

I’ve said Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian can’t be adapted, but I was wrong. Nicolas Winding Refn should direct it. Valhalla Rising is all the proof I need. Between this movie and Refn’s previous effort (Bronson) he has already established his McCarthy-amanuensis credentials. All that “blood-welling-from-the-landscape” stuff is in Refn’s wheelhouse. He seems to instinctively understand, like McCarthy, the darkest parts of men. And not just to understand either, but, again like McCarthy, to be able to enter the reverie of violence, the sea-churn of it, the natural clash. Because, to direct Blood Meridian right, you don’t want to show pornographic violence – it isn’t about men being killed – you want people to feel the terror of strength.

Oblivion is omnipresent in nature; oblivious to us, to our morality. Earthquakes don’t single out the wicked, they obliterate…good and bad, civilised and uncivilised. We aren’t judged by nature because nature doesn’t see us. It’s what Werner Herzog is always banging on about, what Cormac McCarthy wrote about until he went soft and wrote The Road. In Valhalla Rising, One-Eye is part of nature. People mistake him for being evil. But he’s no more evil than a storm. He kills the people who stand in his way. When he dies, it’s like he dissipates. He has been part of the world – part of its violence – and then it murders him. Fury is like the arrowhead he found, a totem of nature. Creation is a crusade.

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