Five Stars out of Five
**Spoilers may be present throughout**
As stated in my review of Casino Royale, the performance I had been most intrigued to see was that of Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen, who portrayed the principle villain. Eager to dive into his filmography, I mulled over which of his films to view next. Seeing as I was impressed with his portrayal of the sinister Le Chiffre, a character who displays his personality chiefly through silent expression, I opted to view this film, which showcases Mikkelsen as a silent character, as my first formal introduction.
Valhalla Rising (dir. Nicolas Winding Refn) is an English language Danish film set during the time of the Viking conquests. Mikkelsen plays an enslaved warrior known only as One Eye who literally only has one eye and is completely mute. In time, he rids himself of his captors and sets out on his own only to encounter a band of “Christians” who recruit him to join them on their voyage to the Holy Land. However, their trek leads them into a lush no-man’s land where their very survival and sanity are at stake.
Artistically and visually, Valhalla Rising is an atmospheric film where you can practically feel the wind, mist, and mud. This is not a large-budget Viking-inspired action flick but a minimalist film with sparse dialogue and nothing pretentious in its design, score, or tone. It’s raw, organic, and its lack of spectacle allows audiences to use their imaginations. The meaning and execution of Valhalla Rising might be lost if one goes into this expecting to be visually wowed. Instead, this is a decidedly Scandinavian film that relies heavily on mythology yet isn’t a retelling. It’s a wonderful yet gritty work of cinema that recaptures the lost art of presenting less rather than more.
Structure-wise, this film’s story is divided into six parts:
Part I: Wrath introduces us to One Eye, a warrior at the mercy of his captors who is forced to compete in brutal fights. Even though he’s caged and chained like an animal, his handlers still fear what he can do. His only ally is a young nameless Boy who gives him food and water and seems to pity his plight. After One Eye escapes his captors, the Boy follows in his wake and serves as One Eye’s voice.
Part II: Silent Warrior shows One Eye as a free man. In time, he runs across a band of Christian soldiers who invite One Eye to join them on their voyage to Jerusalem to reclaim the Holy Land for Christ. It’s worth noting that these “Christians” are, for the most part, not true followers of Christ (save for one man who genuinely seems concerned for his soul and the souls of others). Rather than driven by a love for God and the Gospel, these men are dragged away by their own greed as their true desire in reclaiming the Holy Land is rooted in a false belief that it promises untold riches.
Part III: Men of God has the soldiers, One Eye, and the Boy on a cramped boat en route to the Holy Land. Their journey becomes arduous as the wind and sea currents cease and dense mist obstructs their view. This leads some of their number to believe One Eye is to blame and is, therefore, cursed. However, it is One Eye who ultimately discerns when they have made safe passage.
Part IV: The Holy Land shows the men entering a verdant land but it’s not the Holy Land. Here, they stumble upon natural beauty as well as terrors that imply they are not alone. Tensions mount when One Eye goes out and returns with a sword but not its owner, leaving some of the group to wonder if he is not only cursed by also a murderer.
Part V: Hell shows the soldiers’ mental, emotional, and moral breakdown as they remain in an uncharted land. Their leader cares more about claiming the land in God’s name than his men’s safety. Rather than seek a way back home or even a means of finding food, he insists they press on. This leads to a complete dissolution of the group as it’s every man for himself. Only the Boy stays out of harm’s way and One Eye goes off by himself to erect a seven-stone carin away from the chaos.
Part VI: The Sacrifice shows the fates of all of the characters, none more poignantly than that of One Eye. While the film doesn’t possess a traditional happy ending, it concludes with a sense of victorious triumph very much in line with the Scandinavian epics of old.
It’s worth breaking down the mythology incorporated into this film. I have always been interested in Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian mythology and warrior culture as the latter is uniquely masculine, so I (as a woman) am drawn to these intriguing philosophies and points of view. Works such as Beowulf (Old English), The Wanderer (Old English), the Poetic Edda (Norwegian), the Kalevala (Iceland), and sundry Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian tales have served as the backbone for my own studies and work in fantasy literature as well as an appreciation for myths from those parts of the world. While knowing about Scandinavian myths and legends isn’t required, it certainly helps in understanding where Valhalla Rising is coming from.
Valhalla (“hall of the slain”) in Norse myth was essentially a mead hall presided over by Odin, the chief Norse god. In Popular Tales from the Norse, Sir George Webbe Dasent describes it as a place of “endless mirth and bliss with Odin” (xi). However, Valhalla isn’t a realm of the afterlife in and of itself but a location within Asgard, home of the gods. Here, Odin decides from among those slain in battle who will accompany him into Valhalla, escorted by the Valkyries, and who will go to the field Fólkvangr overseen by the goddess Freyja. Hence, Valhalla was intended to be a place of merriment where warriors’ souls could convene with the gods. Thus, it’s worth establishing that this is the underlying philosophy and culture Valhalla Rising stems from. It might be an English-language film but it is unmistakably Scandinavian in its treatment of its world, characters, and underlying mythology.
As stated earlier, this was my second Mads Mikkelsen film after viewing Casino Royale. In that review, I noted that Mikkelsen had a special, undefinable quality to his acting that I was eager to explore. I decided on Valhalla Rising as my formal introduction to him as a leading actor for a couple of reasons. One, it is a Danish film, so I felt it was only fair to watch him in a film from his home country and that represented and paid respect to his native culture. Second, I knew of his character’s verbal and visual limitations in this film before going in, and seeing as I was impressed with his restrained performance of Le Chiffre in Casino Royale, I was curious to see how he tackled a similar role as the lead character.
Mikkelsen does not disappoint and his acting skills are extraordinary. I would imagine that a character who is not only mute but also visually impaired would be difficult to play in and of itself, but the entire persona of One Eye defies convention. He never expresses outright emotion yet you can feel his anger, his desperation, his resignation, and even his compassion towards the Boy. It’s never through large, obvious gestures but in subtle movements, such as careful glances of the eye, twitches of the lip, or controlled breathing, as One Eye’s displays of pain, anger, frustration, and determination come entirely through micro-expressions.
In interviews, Mikkelsen said his inspiration for playing this character was derived from watching animals interact with their environment. He notes he was mindful not to give One Eye human tics or cues nor turn him into an animalistic person but someone who isn’t at home in the world where he finds himself. Mikkelsen said he viewed One Eye not as a “human being” but a “mythology character….[akin to] an animal in a zoo that people [were] looking at.” Many allusions are made in the film to One Eye being a supernatural or super-human being; hence, it makes sense to have such a character distance himself from people. Initially, it seems One Eye relates to his environment and the people he encounters (save for the Boy) through violence, which, according to Mikkelsen, serves as a metaphor, a “means of expressing…emotional violence in brutal emotional situations.”
The way Mikkelsen employs subtle physical cues with restraint and control is a skill I’ve only seen exhibited by one other actor, Al Pacino, whom I consider to be an acting gold standard. Pacino is a master at playing to his environment, allowing his face and body language to relay emotion and turning a character into a person from whom you can feel emotions and sense what he’s contemplating before, or even if, he ever speaks. Mikkelsen’s style is redolent of this and it’s a joy to watch. As a side note, for me to compare Mikkelsen to a living legend such as Pacino is the biggest compliment I can give an actor, and I believe it’s fairly warranted.
Concerning One Eye himself, his character deserves to be discussed at length. At first glance, One Eye seems to be a stand-in for Odin. In Norse myth, Odin is sometimes called One Eye as he sacrificed one of his eyes in order to obtain wisdom and, in the process, was able to glimpse hidden things. However, the film stops shy of overtly calling One Eye an embodiment of Odin though the implications are there and such an interpretation is certainly not inappropriate.
Though we’re never told where One Eye comes from, it’s clear he is feared and his fighting skills are legendary. However, the fact One Eye is initially kept chained and caged shows he is a power mortal men try to contain to no avail. As One Eye’s captor observes, “He’s driven by hate. That’s how he survives. Why he never loses.” Whatever his reason for existing in the human world, One Eye is initially driven by wrath and revenge though that changes as the story progresses. One aspect that doesn’t change is that One Eye clearly doesn’t belong in the world of mortal men as he is mistreated, misunderstood, and wrongfully accused albeit he decides to sacrifice himself for others, namely the Boy, who is the only pure-hearted character.
When asked about his origins, the Boy declares that One Eye was “brought up from Hel” (not Hell), which is located “on the other side of the ocean.” I make this distinction because how we interpret One Eye’s origins rests heavily on the meaning of this statement. One interpretation is that One Eye is a being from Hell, which implies he has demonic origins. Another interpretation (and I lean more towards this view) is that One Eye is a being from Hel. In Scandinavian myth, Hel was both an underworld realm and the name of the female being who ruled over it (akin to the way Hades is both the keeper of the underworld and the term for the underworld itself in Greek myth). There is no heavy reference to Hel as a goddess in Scandinavian myth, so it’s possible she was merely a figure and not a worshiped deity. What we do know is that Hel was the daughter of Loki, a trickster god, and was a bit of a schemer herself though not shockingly cruel. Not much is known about her or her realm, though it’s never depicted as a place of torment. The word hel actually means “concealed place;” therefore, it was simply a place where deceased souls resided. Hence, another – and probably more culturally correct – interpretation is that One Eye is a warrior whose soul went to Hel but for some reason was allowed to return to the mortal realm. Curiously, even One Eye himself leaves his origins up to interpretation. This ambiguity is a rare trait in movies these days and it’s something I enjoy because it encourages the audience to use their imagination to determine for themselves who, or what, One Eye is.
Furthermore, I also believe One Eye functions as a Messianic figure. A Messianic figure is not an exact metaphor for Christ but a character who embodies some of Christ’s traits. Savior figures appear in numerous stories and films, from Frodo, Aragorn, and Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings to Neo from The Matrix franchise. Such characters are not meant to be allegories but symbolic figures. Hence, based on some of the traits he exhibits and treatment he receives, One Eye serves as a Messianic/savior figure.
One Eye is misunderstood by most and trusted by only a few, namely the Boy who ventures to places even grown men will not go because he trusts One Eye, embodying the idea of having the faith of a child. Others seek to kill One Eye, assuming he is a cursed man and of the devil (much like how Christ was accused of being in league with demons). In Part III: Men of God when the men are on the boat, we see a parallel between this scene and the time in Scripture when Christ calmed the storm. Only here, the storm is internal rather than external. While the wind and waves are calm, the men endure inner turmoil and a few even attempt to kill One Eye. However, this inner distress is calmed when One Eye discovers that they have entered fresh waters and offers some to the men to calm their thirst.
One Eye’s story echos another part of Christ’s life in Part V: Hell as this serves as his Garden of Gethsemane moment. While One Eye is off building the carin and mentally preparing himself to meet his fate (much like how Christ went off to pray prior to his death on the cross), the Boy and the soldiers go their separate ways. This echos the way Christ agonized in Gethsemane alone while his disciples were oblivious to his suffering. And just as Christ often made reference to his own death, so One Eye catches glimpses of his fate through red-tinged visions of seemingly disconnected images of future events.
By the film’s end, as One Eye leads the Boy out of the wilderness, they are followed by two soldiers, the leader’s son, who is a victim of assault, and the only genuine Christian in the group. Curiously, it is the group’s outcasts – a boy, a rape victim, and a man whose theology is different from the materialistic philosophy of his comrades – who follow One Eye, who is also an outcast. In time, the leader’s son decides to go back to his father. Before making his decision, the leader’s son calls One Eye a liar, which prompts the Boy to ask, “If he’s lying, why are you following him?” This serves to symbolize a challenge of faith – if one doesn’t trust in God or believe what Christ said about Himself is true, then why follow Him in the first place.
However, just as the film never makes explicit parallels between One Eye and Odin, it also doesn’t openly parallel One Eye and Christ. There are elements in One Eye’s story that paint him as a Messianic/savior figure but he is not a metaphor. He harbors a vengeful side and isn’t sinless. Even other characters note this, as the only genuine Christian soldier tells One Eye that, “We are more than flesh and blood. More than revenge….You should consider your soul. That’s where the real pain lies.” One Eye is a man of war, not peace. Whoever he was before, he was clearly forged by battle and possibly anger, hatred, or a desire for vengeance. The Christian soldier is right in telling One Eye that “we are more than flesh and blood” as people also possess a soul, and it is this that One Eye needs to give more heed to rather than acting out of a spirit of revenge.
Along these lines, water also serves as a motif, marking the major turning points in One Eye’s journey: he finds his key to freedom while bathing, he embarks on his principle journey on the ocean, he enters the new world through a river, he makes peace with his fate on an islet in an estuary, and his final scene occurs near an entry point to the sea. Perhaps in these moments, a part of One Eye’s vengeful soul being washed away so that by the end what is left is a refined, cleansed soul who is ready to return to the afterlife with a clean spirit and conscience.
In the film’s final moments, One Eye displays a rare gesture of emotion to the Boy and surrenders any means of defending himself. Just as the Christian solider tells the Boy how Christ “sacrificed His life so that we could be free from pain and misery,” so One Eye gives of himself so others, namely the Boy, can be free from danger and fear. The film then closes on a epic bookend to One Eye’s narrative. As Dasent notes, “The Norseman’s god was a god of battles, and victory his greatest gift to men!” (viii). Valhalla Rising captures this in a way that allows a sliver of myth to come to life despite not being a strict retelling of any particular myth. One Eye embodies the image of the fierce Norse warrior and potential demigod as well as a savior who ultimately sacrifices himself. His fate is not a defeat but a victory both for himself and the ones he chooses to save.
In the end, One Eye’s story is left up to interpretation, which I thoroughly enjoyed because it allows viewers to derive their own meaning from his tale. One Eye could be Odin in Human form or a warrior soul who has been forced or permitted to return to the land of the living to redeem himself, learn a lesson, or carry out a mission he failed to complete in life. It’s possible this latter view is the most appropriate as, to start, One Eye is driven by rage and revenge but later displays a reversal of this nature. As such, perhaps in his final act, he ends up redeeming his vengeful soul and can finally be at peace. Regardless how one chooses to interpret One Eye and his journey, this open-ended quality to the film’s story allows viewers to ascribe their own meaning and, hence, their own cathartic takeaway.
Overall, Valhalla Rising is a compelling work of cinematic art that demands serious viewership, analysis, and discussion. Unlike some minimalist films that reek of desperate pretentiousness, this film never calls attention to the fact that it’s a piece of visual storytelling rather than a verbal narrative, so it welcomes multiple interpretations. Mikkelsen’s performance is stunning and not to be missed either by newcomers or seasoned fans. Lastly, its basis in Scandinavian lore and myth as well as its subtle, metaphoric quality that avoids spelling everything out ultimately make it a gritty treat for the senses as well as the mind.
Content: Valhalla Rising is unrated but seems like R-rated fare based on the following:
Language – This film only has 120 lines of dialogue, so profanity usage is extremely infrequent and consists of a few uses of the word bast–d, SOB, and several uses of the f-word in succession by one character during a stressful scene. The word hell is also used but usually not as a profanity and is oftentimes Hel, which is pronounced exactly the same.
Violence – While the film isn’t constantly violent, there are scenes where characters engage in combat and die often with blood splatter and some gore, from slit throats to stabbings. Two of the most graphic moments are when One Eye bashes a man’s skull in with a rock, exposing his brains (which are glimpsed for only a few seconds), and when One Eye disembowels one of his captors. In this scene, all the audience sees is One Eye cutting into the man’s stomach and (off-screen) reaching inside the man’s torso. (His intestines are briefly shown as One Eye casts them aside.) Later, One Eye carries a severed head and places it on a spike; however, the actual decapitation occurs off-screen. Elsewhere, there are numerous perilous and tense moments as characters either are or might be in danger. Decomposing bodies are glimpsed on what appears to be sacrificial altars, but no details are shown. The band of soldiers evidentially (off-screen) burned a group of people as we see a pile of charred bodies and bones in the background. One character willing sacrifices himself, though his fate is never depicted on-screen. Also, while One Eye sports a single eye and a heavily scarred face, we’re never told or shown how he acquired these injuries. Overall, while there are some bloody moments, the camera never lingers on any carnage and it is not violent for shock value as it relates to the overall story and tone.
Sexual Material – Essentially none save for a quick scene where one man appears to rape another man who is face-down in mud. However, both men are fully clothed and most of the scene is filmed from the victim’s perspective (so we never see the rapist in the act, but we do see the Boy’s horrified expression as he watches from afar). Elsewhere, at a raided campsite, we see a group of naked woman huddled together at a distance. No explicit nudity is shown as any sensitive areas are concealed by crossed arms, legs, or objects such as rocks or grass. Early in the film, One Eye is shirtless as he’s forced to grapple with other warriors, but these scenes are devoid of any sexual context or content.
Dasent, Sir George Webbe. Popular Tales from the Norse. Dover Publications, 2001.
Mads Mikkelsen Valhalla Rising Interview: https://youtu.be/k1qppdbpUB8