Overly Harsh Movie Reviews: Valhalla Rising

Dang, it’s been a while since I blogged. I’ll try to get back here a bit more often. As should be unsurprising to those who know me, the reason I’m back is I hated something.

Spoiler alert, blah, blah, blah.




A coworker recommended this film, and since I’ve been on a real Norse Mythology kick recently, it seemed right up my alley. And the opening was really promising. It has that slow, methodical indie film feel about it. Nobody speaks for the first five minutes or so and there’s just shot after shot of beautiful scenery and medieval viking squalor. Our hero, a one-eyed slave (gee, I wonder if he’s supposed to be Odin. No, probably not, nothing in this movie is what it seems.) is forced to fight other slaves for the amusement of his captors. Our hero is quickly established to be a bad-ass as he kills challenger after challenger while tethered to a pole.

And I’m thinking, “okay, the violence is unusually graphic, but this might be a kick-ass action film”. Nope. Because the fighting soon stops and we go back to long, slow, methodical shots of One-Eye (no, that’s actually his name) being in a cage and stacking rocks and these weird flashes of red which we find out are visions of the future and Oh My God has it only been ten minutes? There’s a boy who feeds him and there’s some more talk about him being a bad ass, but let’s skip a bunch because none of it matters.

He’s sold. He escapes en-route to his new home. More graphic violence. The boy follows him. He meets up with some Christian Vikings who are going on a crusade. Oh yeah, did I mention that the hero of the story never speaks and the boy speaks for him, or maybe just makes shit up because who can tell? (I will say that Mads Mikkelson does a brilliant job of being a presence on the screen given that he never speaks and has exactly one facial expression for the whole film.) More endless shots of people staring into the distance. Ocean voyage with mist. People die because they’re stupid. They’re in the New World, but it’s also Hell. There’s a weird scene where they take some hallucinogen (with some implied man-on-man rape for those who weren’t yet disgusted).

I could describe the rest of the film, but I’m actually getting bored thinking of it again. There are a couple more fight scenes that are well staged and have a nice visceral feel to them. There’s never any posturing or hollywood fighting. Every encounter is vicious and over in a heart-beat. As gruesome as they are, the fights are by far the best thing about this film.

The trouble with the film? As far as I can tell, there’s no point to the story. I spent the whole film wracking my brain trying to understand the symbolism. Maybe the hero is Odin and he’s leading them towards knowledge or death? Is it a Pagan vs. Christian thing? A meditation on the nature of Faith? A metaphor for European colonization of the New World?

Nope. When the damn thing ended I went online and found an interview with the director.

When asked about the context of the film he says: “Disorientation.” He calls the movie a “fever dream” and compares the effect of it to taking LSD. He then has the unmitigated gall to imply that anyone who hates the movie (Ooh! Ooh! Me! Me!) was so deeply affected by it that they just don’t yet know why it is they liked it. Seriously read that interview. He refuses to believe that it’s possible to not like this movie.

But here’s what bothers me the most. I can stand a movie that I don’t understand as long as I can sense that there’s some point to it. This is why I was dissatisfied with but still appreciated No Country For Old Men. But this movie wasn’t just obscure, it was deliberately obfuscated. The director not only owns up to there not being a discernible point to it, he takes pride in it and then flips the bird to anyone who was expecting … oh I don’t know … a freaking recognizable story.

I’ll say it again. Your movie has to have a story and that story has to have a point. If it doesn’t, don’t call it a movie. Call it a “visual essay” so that I’ll know to avoid it.

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