Valhalla Rising was described by Nicolas Winding Refn as the beginning of “phase two” of his career. To look at it on those terms really brings a lot into focus. Billed as a science-fiction viking movie, the film is stubbornly oblique and arty yet fiercely violent and striking. You get the sense that Refn doesn’t care if you like his movie or not, it is simply an expression of his interests and thoughts – a piece of art.
I’m in a headspace at the moment where I am increasingly thankful for this kind of cinema: uncompromising, singular, personal and bold. I don’t need a film to work on all levels to enjoy it, I don’t need to understand the decisions made for them to be valid. The concept of “pretentious art film” (which this film could certainly be filed under) feels like an increasingly lazy notion. Especially if I feel that the film is the work of a genuine artist with a developed voice. Maybe this is a sign of myself becoming pretentious? If so, who cares? This kind of thinking really lies at the heart of my love for a filmmaker like Nicolas Winding Refn. Like him or not, he is totally intent on making films that could only come from his imagination. To watch one of his movies is to look at his darkest fears, perverse desires, deepest thoughts and craziest ideas. He never apologises for his movies nor should he.
Valhalla Rising is baffling and fascinating in equal parts. I love the bold strokes and total disregard for traditional film conventions. When we try and measure a film by how clear the “story” is or how interesting the “characters” are, it’s easy to brand a film as a failure if it doesn’t adhere to these norms. Therefore it’s easy to say that Valhalla Rising is confusing, frustrating and uneven. But remember that Nicolas Winding Refn had no intention of making a movie that can be enjoyed on those terms. Like many of his films, this is a heady and hallucinogenic affair that provokes thought and interaction. Watching the movie again I was struck at the fearless use of silence. So much of the film is scored by a disarming quietness. Even in the wildest moments, Refn resists the urge to enhance his visuals with pounding music and sound design. Maybe that would have made the film more visceral and intense but again: Refn is challenging himself and us to experience the film in an unconventional way.
Whether this is a good film or a bad film is besides the point. It really depends on you. The reason I gave Valhalla Rising another spin is because I wanted to live in another worldview for 90 minutes. Everyone sees the world differently and thanks to films like Valhalla Rising or Only God Forgives we can now see the world through Nicolas Winding Refn’s eyes if we want to. Isn’t that the great pleasure of cinema and art in general, to experience a new point of view? It’s what keeps me coming back. This aint a masterpiece, but at least it’s fucking different.