Nicolas Winding Refn has no idea why he does what he does.
“I don’t know why I make any of my films,” says the Danish director and cowriter of Valhalla Rising, which opens in New York July 16. “I’m not a political filmmaker, so it’s not to say some message. I make my films because of the fear I have. The fear that I’ll never get a chance to make another film. So I try to make each one like it’s my last.”
His latest effort has a force of such barbaric proportions, it feels like it just might be.
Set in Scotland, circa 1000 A.D., Valhalla Rising tells the tale of a mute Scandinavian savage (Mads Mikkelsen) who is penned and fed only soup. From time to time his owner releases him to fight for money. Aided by slave boy Are (Maarten Stevenson), the brute eventually slays his captor. Then he and the boy begin their long journey home.
That Mikkelsen does not utter even one line of dialogue says a lot about his performance—all of it good. Commanding yet ethereal, he’s a sort of Warrior With No Name. Are dubs him “One Eye” because he has only one good orb. (Curiously, in the 007 adventure Casino Royale, Mikkelsen played a Bond villain also with a problem eye.) The scar tissue over the eye in the new film resembles an Egyptian drawing.
Refn insists he does not know how his hero lost the eye—or if he even has a tongue—but says, “One Eye certainly comes to represent all religions after a while. He travels with you to your destiny no matter what your faith is. He’s there to wash away your sins. The movie is like science fiction but without the science.”
ARE YOU TRIPPING?
The movie is also a synthesis of Leone-Eastwood spaghetti westerns, the horror-western hybrid Django, Kill! (If You Live, Shoot!) as well as influences ranging from Tarkovsky to Kubrick to Conrad. “There’s even some Snake Plissken,” Refn adds with a grin.
And yet, Valhalla Rising is hardly the cast-of-thousands epic it sounds like. Often it plays like Highlander crossed with The New World—and directed by Lars von Trier.
The opening titles tell us: “In the beginning there was only man and nature. Then men came bearing crosses and drove the heathen to the ends of the earth.” Well, between those two sentences came pyramids and some other important stuff, but who’s complaining when such beautifully harsh landscapes seize the screen.
The lighting, too. It’s either break-of-dawn blue or radioactive red, the latter denoting One Eye’s flashbacks (flash-forwards?). The look overall is so wet and muddy, you might want to take a shower right after seeing it. Foreboding pronouncements between the skull-bashing brawls heighten the disorientation: “I had a dream like this once,” says one character. “I couldn’t find my way home. Then I realized I was dead.”
Once Are and One Eye happen upon a group of Christian crusaders on a voyage by land and water to conquer Jerusalem, the film takes an even more hypnotic detour. Christian symbolism shines through as the hilt of a long sword and the mast of a ship become harbingers. But of good fortune or bad?
Then their sea journey is engulfed in fog. When it lifts, they find themselves in a strange new world. One Eye, it seems, may not be a guest but a guide.
“When we first see him, he’s like an animal,” Refn says. “Then he grows because he begins to use tools. Later, he becomes a god as he leads these men to their fate. And finally, he becomes a man with the sacrifice that he has to make.”
They even share a jug that contains a hallucinogenic drug. “They can’t go any further,” says Refn, “except in their own mind.”
WHY A CHAINSAW?
Refn is embarking on a potentially surreal trip of his own: to Hollywood. That’s where he’ll make his next film, Drive, based on the novel by James Sallis and starring Ryan Gosling. Then he’s set to direct Only God Forgives, an original screenplay by Refn that shoots in Bangkok next year.
About the legendary pitfalls for foreign filmmakers given studio assignments, Refn shrugs. “I’m not worried about it. I haven’t had to answer to anyone but myself with my films, but I’m looking forward to working within a system and seeing what it’s like.” Whether his career takes the trajectory of Ang Lee or George Sluizer, only time will tell.
Certainly his work to date suggests a fiery spirit. Refn came to fame after directing such international hits as Bronson and especially the cult phenom The Pusher Trilogy. In his formative years, Refn was expelled from the American Academy of the Dramatic Arts for throwing a desk against a wall.
“I was in the ‘moment’ during a scene,” he explains. “But I was young and ‘angry’ at the world—however, I never liked any kind of schooling.”
Maybe it’s fitting that his favorite film is Tobe Hooper’s grubby masterpiece The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. “It was the first time I saw that film could be an art form,” he says. He first watched it in 1983 on a bill with Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes at Cinema Village when Refn lived in New York. If that double feature doesn’t make you fond of cinematic bloodletting, nothing will.
So it should come as no surprise ferocity is a staple in a Refn film. The chapter headings in Valhalla Rising are unapologetically over the top. (A sample? “PART V: HELL.”)
The score by Peter Kyed and Peter Peter is hardly some swashbuckler symphony; it sounds more like a collection of B sides from Tool. (Click on “Eon Blue Apocalypse,” and you’ll hear what I mean.)
“I can’t play an instrument to save my life, but I do love music,” Refn says. “Until Valhalla Rising, the films I’ve done have been contemporary. And even though this was a historic film, I was looking for a [modern] link. So I went with this score that felt remote and very far away. Like the locations where we shot in the mountains in Scotland. Some of those locations took two hours to get up to and two hours to get back down from. I wanted music that sounded like the creation of Earth.”
The soundtrack stems from his attitude toward sound in general. Certain effects are abnormally loud and crisp. “I would turn up the sound when I record so I can heighten the effect. I also want to externalize internal sounds, like the breaking of a bone.”
Other sounds, as when a man is jettisoned from a boat, are barely audible.
“The part of the film on the boat I wanted to feel like you were in a spaceship. Because for these men, back then, traveling alone in a boat across the ocean and not knowing where they’re going or whether they were coming back? It would have been like you or me traveling to the stars.”
These and other unconventional ingredients flow from a simple fact. “I have difficulty relating to historical films,” he says. “So this is a historical film, but unlike one you’ve ever seen.”
So he may not know why he does what he does. But he sure knows what he wants.