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Nicolas Winding Refn has always struck me as the sort of artist whose ego writes checks his talent can’t cash. His unambitious filmography is full of entries just idiosyncratic enough to garner praise but not alienating enough to be truly worthwhile. Complimentary comparisons to Lynch, Argento, and Tarkovsky abound — Refn’s vision is far from unique. He is always less than the sum of his influences, a filmmaker so awash in the impulses of his predecessors that he can’t help but drown. His films are suffused with meaningless “meaning” and ugly, insufferable stylism. He’s a terrible director. Valhalla Rising is a terrible film.
The only thing I remember hearing about this film at the time of its release is that it had very little dialogue, and wasn’t that incredible? A film with no talking? Imagine! I’m baffled by those reactions now, chiefly because the film has maybe 10% less talking than average for the time. I think what people were actually picking up on was the sparse sound design, which trades most background foley effects for the noise of a persistent rushing wind, what Twin Peaks: The Return’s subtitles called an “ominous whoosh.” But unlike that project, there’s a distinct lack of atmosphere in Valhalla Rising. For all the shots of rolling misty hills, there’s no clear setting, never a sense of place. Refn doesn’t draw on the geography to construct the metaphorical hell (or Hel) to which his characters travel. He might as well have shot this thing in an empty windowless room.
But as concerns the “lack” of dialogue, making a movie like that requires a command of visual storytelling that Refn just doesn’t have. His images, even in the oh-so-surreal dream sequences, convey nothing but plot information. His visuals have no power to suggest, to imply, to mean. They can only be punishingly literal. It’s brutalist filmmaking disguised by superficial abstraction. It makes 90 minutes feel like an eternity.
What’s more distressing is how he uses these images to stitch together a script whose only saving grace is how lightweight it is. This was Refn’s seventh feature film, and his writing is still sub-film school. Characters show up to state their intentions and beliefs and then disappear for more moodless shots of fog or trees or rivers. It feels less like a first draft and more like a rough sketch, a one-page outline put to screen. I don’t think that a good film needs a screenplay at all, necessarily, but Valhalla Rising has just enough of one to make its deficiencies disastrous. The way Refn attempts to paper over those deficiencies with his boring visuals is insulting. Does he really think so little of the artists who have influenced him? Does he really think that their styles exist in a vacuum?
That last point is the key to his entire filmography, I think. Refn is enamored with the language of film, but he doesn’t know how to speak it. He loves how something looks, but can’t read it for meaning. He is perpetually halfway to being an artist.
Also he should stop casting interesting actors in roles where they don’t speak or emote or do anything. If you want to watch Mads Mikkelsen in an arty, hyper-stylized gorefest, check out Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal. He actually talks on that show.