Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn follows his biopic of slaphead hardman Charles Bronson with another tough customer prone to violent outbursts.
Where Tom Hardy’s mustachioed con articulated his rage, mute warrior One-Eye (Mads Mikkelsen) lets his deeds do the talking in a bleak Viking saga heavier on brooding visuals than expositional chit-chat.
Beginning in a muddy, windswept wilderness we assume is Scotland, Rising introduces its main character as a caged brawler released periodically to win savage scraps for tribal chieftain Barde (Alexander Morton).
But it’s not long before he has slaughtered his captors and is a free man again, accompanied only by the boy (Maarten Stevenson) who fed him when he was enslaved.
Falling in with a group of Christian soldiers heading for the Promised Land, our visually challenged hero eventually – following a period becalmed at sea – winds up in a strange New World where his party is preyed upon by hostile natives. Yet this slender plot only exists as a skeleton for what is essentially an internal journey that steers One-Eye, and us, into a symbolic heart of darkness.
Steeped in the same hallucinatory qualities as Apocalypse Now, The New World and Aguirre, The Wrath Of God, Refn’s latest casts a hypnotic spell throughout. But like the weird markings adorning Mikkelsen’s torso, it’s also frustratingly oblique, refusing to be drawn on who is who, where we are and what on earth is going on.
In effect it’s a mood piece, abstract chapter headings clarifying little beyond a gloomy tone. Beside a few lurid scarlet visions, the palette is grey enough to make The Road look like The Wizard Of Oz.
There’s no denying Valhalla keeps you in a state of expectant, queasy unease. But at some point, you expect a pay-off – something that seems to have gone missing, along with Mads’ left eye and tongue.
Muddy, bloody and oppressively grim, Refn’s mini-epic has a compelling lead performance from Mikkelsen that makes up for some really quite hammy supporting turns. Alas, the funereal pacing, meandering story and abrupt ending means this Viking won’t be to everyone’s liking.