Sunday, 5 September 2010

The Thin White Dude's Reviews - Valhalla Rising

Okay, here I have the first in a batch of four reviews which will be coming up over the next week. Originally, it was meant to have been a review for 44-Inch Chest, but unfortunately half-an-hour through the film the disc started messing up, and it was a long ten-minute scene so I decided to forget the idea of watching the film without a significant portion of the film. The following morning, I reviewed this film, Valhalla Rising. This is the new film by Nicholas Winding Refn, the director of Bronson, for which Tom Hardy won last year's Kevin Spacey Award for Best Actor from myself, and the Pusher trilogy, which I have yet to see. I really liked Bronson, and this stars Mads Mikkelsen of Casino Royale fame, so I was interested to see this film, and to be honest, was quite lucky I chose to rent it out, because thanks to the geniuses at marketing, it was almost not to be. I have searched on Google Images, and it seems that there are better and more appropriate posters to fit the film, but the DVD sleeve of the film (and the disc itself) gives the impression that the film is some 300-type film with lots of scenes of battle and what-have-you. Let me just say from the offset before I start properly reviewing the film that Valhalla Rising is only similar to 300 in the vaguest sense of the word. It would actually be safe to say that one of the only similarities between the two is that they are period pieces, if you kind of get the impression of how similar they actually are, so well done to marketing for condemning your film amongst testosterone-junkie-Danny Dyer's-Hardest Men-watching types (I'm trying my best to remain within the English language with regards to my terms, but sometimes it is so limiting). Now, for the short synopsis. Set in 1000 AD, the film follows One-Eye, played by Mads Mikkelsen, named so by his boy companion Are, played by Maaran Stevensen, as they venture on a crusade to Jerusalem with a group of Christian Vikings. There, that's all you need to know, because really, the enjoyment of the film comes from not knowing where the film is going. To start with what is good about the film, Mads Mikkelsen delivers a tremendous performance as One-Eye. Having the task of being unable to use speech to help him deliver his performance as the mute One-Eye, Mikkelsen delivers a tremendous performance. As someone who has to use his actions to speak for him, Mikkelsen does this really well and is able to get across the intent of the character to the audience. That said, I think that one of the most important aspects of the performance is the air of mystery that is consistent throughout. Despite being able to send us messages through his actions, Mikkelsen's performance only gives us the basest message, so that the nature of his character is to be ambiguous, whether or not he is a demonic figure or a Christ-like figure. Neither is certain or concrete and it makes for an interesting performance. Finally, the physicality of Mikkelsen as One-Eye is very interesting. An indifferent, solitary and almost benign presence when not threatened, it makes for genuinely frightened and quivering moments when the animal inside him explodes in savage brutality, before returning to his former state of meditation. Seeing as how the film relies much on whether or not the performance works, Mads Mikkelsen delivers in bounds, in what is certainly to be up for consideration for the best actor shortlist at the end of the year. Another high point regarding the film is the fantastic cinematography by Morten Soborg, who does an impeccable job on the location shooting. For a film that was shot entirely in Scotland, the atmosphere that is created by this stunning photography contributes greatly to the film. The concept of the location being Scotland melts out of your consciousness as we are taken this journey into the abyss (metaphorically speaking, it's not an underwater film). This is one of those classic cases of what is captured on camera speaking where the dialogue will not. Framing both the landscape of Scotland and the face of Mads Mikkelsen, Soborg shows himself as a very accomplished cinematographer. For a film that was shot for 30 million Danish kroner (£3 million), it looks like something with a much higher budget. Also, the original score for the film by Peter Kyed and Peterpeter is something of a sonic masterpiece. Powerful pulsating electronic sounds penetrated by occasional tribal drums, clanging noises and electric guitars have never sounded so good in a film. This score is one of those things that really need to be listened to. I have been unable to find the original score, so if someone has a copy and is reading this, I would be very grateful for one of you to send a copy. Not that I am endorsing file-sharing. In any way. Whatsoever. Anyway, this score, alongside the tremendous cinematography, create an amazing atmosphere which inhabits the film consistently throughout. I haven't seen a film with an atmosphere like this in a long, long time. The score is intense and gripping. For anyone who cares to guess what the score sounds like, think of the work of one of my favourite electronic/ambient artists Klaus Schulze or perhaps the Popul Vuh score for Aguirre, The Wrath Of God. This brings me to my next point. It is clear that Nicholas Winding Refn is a student of the history of film, and he seems to use the source of his influences to his advantages greatly. As mentioned already, there is a Herzogian (a new term. It doesn't sound bad, so I'm claiming coinage) type of atmosphere, reminiscent of Aguirre, The Wrath Of God. Also, 2001: A Space Odyssey by Stanley Kubrick would be worth mentioning. Apocalypse Now is also there, but there is obviously an influence from spaghetti-western films by directors such as Sergio Leone and The Great Silence and Django by Sergio Corbucci and El Topo by Alejandro Jodorovsky. Anyway, enough of the influences, because you can tell from the work of both this film and Bronson that Winding Refn is a writer-director to watch. It must be thought of in this context, because while there are similarities between the two, Valhalla Rising is a far more abstract and experimental film than Bronson, which, no disrespect to the film, is dominated by Tom Hardy bombarding us with "My name is Charley Bronson." The skill with which Winding Refn writes and directs this film displays a range of palettes which is not really common among young directors under 50 these days. The bad? Well, it was coming down to this, I mean, that's the scripted format. The film is at times frighteningly slow, and does require the viewer to keep up with it. Forget Inception, this is the real deal. I respect Winding Refn for not patronising the audience, but it is at times too slow for its own good. At its best moments, Valhalla Rising is highly gripping, but at its lesser moments can be occasionally be boring. As such, rewatchability is hard to contemplate with Valhalla Rising. However, unlike its critics have said, it is not self-important, but is instead a greatly crafted meditative work on religion, war, violence and nature (both of metaphysical reality and of man), boasting solid direction from Nicholas Winding Refn, a transcendental score by Peter Kyed and Peterpeter, tremendous cinematography by Morten Soberg and a towering performance of physicality and minimalism by Mads Mikkelsen. Roll on the clich├ęs. But no really, Valhalla Rising is a really great film and should be watched.

The Thin White Dude's Prognosis - 8.5/10

The Thin White Dude's Self-Diagnosis - In a mode of pensive thought (quoting myself now)


Jack's complete lack of surprise said...

This looks pretty awesome. I'll be sure to check it out. And by the way, you should get your hands on the Pusher films at any cost. It's amazing stuff. It feels like having a knife shoved into your spine but, inexplicably, you love every last second of it.

Danland - Movies said...

Thouht you night be interested

The Thin White Dude said...

To Jack, after this and Bronson I'm looking forward to getting round to the Pusher films. To DK, apologies for not having read review yet.