Valhalla Rising is a Viking film, although one cautions about throwing it in the same category as other Viking works such as The Vikings (1958), The Norseman (1978) and The Viking Sagas (1996). Perhaps the works that come the closest to Valhalla Risings arena are the two most recent Viking films The 13th Warrior (1999) and particularly Pathfinder (2007), which also dealt with Vikings in the Americas. Valhalla Rising is certainly not an historical epic (at least in any traditional sense), which was exactly the problem that the publicity department had in trying to sell the film to English-language markets. The problem is that what we have feels more like an art film akin perhaps to Terence Malicks The New World (2005) than we necessarily have anything that sits easily as an historical action adventure like Braveheart (1995). As a result of not knowing how to promote it, Valhalla Rising made an almost unnoticed appearance on US shores and vanished without a trace.
Nicolas Winding Refn has stripped the film of almost all dialogue. The lead character played by Mads Mikkelsen says nothing, while the rest of the characters have a purported total of 150 lines throughout. I am not even fully sure that I am reviewing Valhalla Rising as a fantasy film. It is mostly a mundane film, although Mads Mikkelsen does appear to have some visions and be guided by some sense of destiny throughout a mystic sense of destiny and purpose seems to underlie many of Nicolas Winding Refns films, in particular Fear X but so little is explained about anything that it is hard to tell. Certainly, other reviewers regarded Valhalla Rising as more of a work of fantasy than I am prepared to give it it is a slim borderline case at best so I will include it here and let people make up their own mind.
Mostly, Valhalla Rising seems like a tone poem written in the colours of the Earth. It is all about the austere landscapes of Scandinavia (in actuality Scotland) contrasted with the lush verdant and untouched wilderness of the New World, punctuated with the occasional striking contrasts of a series of scarlet-shot scenes when Mads Mikkelsen has his visions. There is a frequently brutal violence in the opening few scenes alone we see a man having his head bashed in by Mads Mikkelsen until the skull splits open and not long after another having his guts sliced open by Mads with an arrowhead and intestines falling out, while Mads frequently despatches members of the party throughout the film with great brutality.
On the minus side, Valhalla Rising is also slow moving. The lack of dialogue makes it seem as though there is no particular plot it seems all characters wandering in a wilderness without ever arriving at a particular point, other perhaps than their deaths. The atmosphere, which is undeniably haunting, even overwhelming, often seems all that there is to the film. In this respect, the film that Valhalla Rising most reminds of is Vincent Wards Vigil (1985), a similar visual poem that embraced the mysteriousness of the landscape and the characters relationship with it. You come away from Valhalla Rising with a deeply haunted sense of the austerity of the land, sea and weather surrounding the characters. It almost seems a film determined to strip everything on the periphery away and emotionally place us inside the awe and fierceness of the relationship that the Vikings of the Middle Ages must have felt in the environment they lived.