Friday, September 3, 2010

The Big Hustle

It is not in this blog's habit of talking about movies in a serious way. Or rather, it does not discuss movies that are meant to be taken seriously in a serious way. But because I am a flexible fellow who is not afraid to branch out into unknown territory, I will do just that today. Just. That. Don't expect me to thatch Mrs. Poopingsworth's roof cuz I just won't do it. Anyway, let's get it on.

Valhalla Rising tells the story of an unnamed mute Viking warrior portrayed by Mads Mikkelsen. He is a slave, and made to fight other slaves. He's so good that he's bound to a pole, while his opponents get free range. Without fail, he bashes everyone's brains in regardless.

Now, this thing is laden with subtext right off the bat. The title itself and the fact that Mikkelsen's nameless guy is called One Eye by his young companion immediately invokes images of Norse mythology (Allfather Odin is portrayed as having one eye). But that's not really touched upon, outside of a short opening crawl. It's the christians that get the brunt of the screentime. Christianity is seen as an invading force from the get go: The opening crawl describes how monotheism is slowly supplanting the old gods, a rival slave-owner tells One-Eye's master he should sell his prized fighter. "You could use the gold. It's the only language the christians understand."

So here we have christianity as a new way of life. A more civilized one. But director Nicholas Winding Refn isn't intersted in portraying the Vikings as noble Robert E. Howard barbarians, whom civilization had best leave unsullied. They are scared of this change, as any culture in decay who's seeing the new bad boy on the block stand up would be. The first twenty minutes of basically One Eye fucking up other fighters in various nasty ways represents to me that dying culture making waves. Here's our big dick warrior god, doing circus bear tricks! We're still here, choo gonn' do?

But One Eye ain't happy, and he escapes in a bloody fashion. That's basically the fashion One Eye does things in: Silent and bloody. Understandable when you're kept in a cage and only let out to kill dudes in between what looks like blood-soaked acid flashbacks. One Eye leaves a young boy alive because he's not that bad a sort, I suppose. IMDb calls the boy "Are", but I don't recall ever having heard a name. The movie almost works better without anyone having names but One Eye. Maybe I just misheard, but I like the idea that everyone's just a shadow to One Eye. The fact that his name is something the boy came up with just to have something to call him adds to it.

The boy comes up with "One Eye" in response to a christian norseman asking for the mute's name. The christian and his band of quasi-knights are introduced after having just dispatched a bunch of heathens and rounded up their scared, shivering, naked women. Since this is the only scene in the movie in which we even see women, I'm tempted to think the shot is meant to mirror civilization's stripping away of the matriarch's mysticism. No need for mom-witches anymore, we got a big poppa god now, and he works alone. But it's a single shot, and not very much elaborated on.

Things really started to click when the boy explains to the christian where they found One Eye. Spoilers will follow from here on out, so if you want to go in fresh and not knowing anysides the general premise I've laid bare so far, I suggets you quit now.

One Eye was found unconscious and alone on a boat coming from over the ocean. That oughta give you a pretty good hint at what One Eye's motivation is. Surely, he wants to go and kill the filthy injuns what killed his durn crew. And sure enough, he takes up christian dude's offer of going to the Holy Land with (relative) eagerness. Soon, a thick fog rises, however, and the journey takes a lot longer than anyone had anticipated. Some men believe One Eye is cursed -- Are lied that they were both christians. Expectedly for anyone who's been watching the movie from the start, they do not succeed in killing him to lift the curse.

The sea voyage is the thing that made me realize this movie's not meant to be taken at face value at all. There's no way they could have crossed the Atlantic in such a shitty little boat. We're deep in parable country here, brah.

Once in North America, the shit hits the fan. This obviously isn't the Holy Land and there are arrows being shot at them from everywhere. They do what good christians do: go nuts and declare that it is now Stab-N-Rape o'clock. Eventually, there's two christian dudes left. Son of the main christian guy and an old guy whose son died follow One Eye and Are into the wilderness. They ask Are for guidance, as he can somehow read One Eye's mind. Since we as an audience never really hear them commune telepathically, it's up to us to decide if he really can, or if he just enjoys power over grown-ups. An unresponsive god-figure being mediated by someone whom no one is sure actually understands him? With the advice both men get essentially being "fuck off and die somewhere", I'm inclined to think Are likes the power.

In the meantime, One Eye's visions/flashbacks have been getting stronger. Coupled with the death and decay he sees around him, he has realized that violence will only beget more violence and it's something he has no taste for anymore. His ultimate surrender and sacrifice at the hands of the natives is perhaps his way of changing: becoming a Christ-figure instead of the warrior god he's been throughout the movie. Are is absolutely baffled by this, and the film ends with him standing on the beach alone as the native Americans leave him be. This is the second time he's deemed not important enough to kill. Are, ultimately, goes from hustlin' religious type to simple man, always ignorant of the motivations of the truly divine.

This is the first Nicholas Winding Refn movie I've seen, and I'm curious about his other work now. I'm equally intrigued by his strange desire to make a Wonder Woman movie (not that WB will ever give it to him). I wonder how much fetish subtext he could sneak into that one.

It ain't your standard Hollywood Viking epic, but if you go in expecting something akin to 2001: A Viking Odyssey, you'll be pleasantly surprised. Do you absolutely disagree with me on everything I thought this movie meant to say? Great! Tell me about it in the comments.

1 comment:

  1. I do love that he accepts his death with the injuns without fighting back since his visions were for that moment. ZOMG SYMBOLOLISM