At the heart of "Valhalla Rising" is a larger-than-life hero, a misfit by the name of One-Eye. Played by Mads Mikkelsen, One-Eye is a mute warrior of supernatural strength held captive by the chieftain Barde. Aided by an orphan boy, he manages to escape and kill his captor. Pursued by bounty hunters, the two board a Viking vessel bound for unknown shores – a journey into the heart of darkness but also, as it turns out, to a fabled land, where One-Eye discovers his true identity.
“As a child I was in love with three things,” director Nicolas Winding Refn says. “Science fiction, Spaghetti westerns and Samurai sword plays – genres where the lead character is a hero of mythical proportion, a silent warrior who stands alone. One-Eye is such a character.”
NOT A VIKING FILM
Even though the story has all the trappings of a grand Viking epic, Refn, from the outset, was intent on telling a modern story of a man’s search for identity.
“I’m not really interested in Vikings as such,” he has pointed out. “Rather, my film is about the Vikings who came to America. I’m fascinated by the American dream that says that everything is possible. If you follow your dream, you’ll reach it, somehow. It will cost you blood, sweat and tears, but it’s worth it.”
Refn’s approach to the ancient saga was to combine poignant imagery with a close-up, intimate realism.
The lengthy production period played its part in lending the film a strong sense of authenticity. The Danish-Scottish team spent two months in the grandiose Glen Affric Mountains in the Scottish highlands. Refn was deliberately looking for desolate, inaccessible locations where he could make use of his special brand of guerrilla-style filmmaking.
“The first two weeks were the most crazy,” Mads Mikkelsen said about the shoot. “I didn’t think we’d survive, honestly. We were freezing all day long. But I think that you can feel that madness in the takes, and that’s pretty cool.”
As he often does in his films, Refn shot most of Valhalla Rising in sequence. “This enables me to explore the film with the characters,” he says. And, if necessary, make room for changes and variations that emerge in the process.
“I strongly believe that film is an art form, and art needs to be explored,” he says, pinpointing his driving force as a filmmaker: his passion for plunging deep into the unknown.
Refn’s willingness to go all the way first made waves in 1996 when he and Mikkelsen both had their breakthrough with "Pusher". The film was like a slap in the face, with its graphic violence and grungy depiction of Copenhagen’s underworld, and became pivotal to the 1990s’ new wave in Danish cinema.
The common thread through all Refn’s films is, in fact, violence. On the surface, "Valhalla Rising", with its universe of oppression and vengeance, seems to be no exception. But unlike many action films, there is nothing glamourous or fetishistic about the brutal realism of Refn’s films. They may be violent, but the violence is intrinsic to these moral tales of human depth and vulnerability, tragedy and poetry.