Monday, 24 May 2010

valhalla rising (w&d nicolas refn, w. roy jacobsen)

This was not the movie any of us expected, after another Sunday evening excursion. It did admittedly contain an appropriate amount of gore, it did contain a single Viking, a one-eyed Viking called One-Eye. But that's as far as it goes. Refn's poster suggests a canter through some millenial pillaging, but the film is a meditative, psychotropic crawl, exploring an unlikely but perhaps feasible voyage towards death.

One-Eye has been captured by a pagan Scottish tribe, and is their resident, caged Giant Haystacks, defeating all-comers. When he escapes, he hooks up with a bunch of witless would-be Scottish Crusaders. Their boat goes the wrong way, drifting Westwards through a pea-souper to arrive on the shores of Vineland, where all and sundry meet their fate, either at each other's hands or those of the unfriendly natives. The spectre of Aguire overshadows the story, even if Refn's adventurers arrive in the New World five hundred years earlier. In an interview, Refn also mentions Tarkovsky, whose debt is evident in the film's stately, anti-dramatic pacing, albeit a pacing interrupted by moments of crude violence.

The premise, with its Scandanavian twist on history, is engaging. The Vikings did make their way to the place which was later named America, and doubtless more than a few suffered desperate, unheralded fates. It wouldn't be hard to read a kind of anti-history into the narrative. The unspoilt Eden of the Americas remains pure, the barbarity of Western ideology, shaped around religion, snuffed out at birth. In an otherwise patchy dialogue, one of the Crusaders remarks of an arrowhead that it's made of stone, not metal, and takes this as evidence that the natives are savages; but in the end it's the Crusaders savagery which is laid bare.

The looseness of the episodic narrative invites a hermeneutic approach which the film itself probably doesn't quite justify. It's something of a curiosity. In an interview where he also says he'd like to direct Wonderwoman, Refn talks about his film as a drug. You could probably read it as a classic bad trip, inclusive of dodgy 'blood-soaked' imagery. Nevertheless, in spite of the iffy dialogue and its general wooziness, the film got under my skin, its refusal to give the audience what it's expecting suggesting a perverse talent.

(Nb - I have not seen Pusher, but have had it recommended to me, and I can imagine that in more concrete, contemporary surroundings, the filmmaker's hypnotic approach could feel revelatory.)

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