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Movie Review

Valhalla Rising

It’s more art film than action flick

Mads Mikkelsen (left) plays One-Eye and Maarten Stevenson portrays his ward in “Valhalla Rising.’’ Mads Mikkelsen (left) plays One-Eye and Maarten Stevenson portrays his ward in “Valhalla Rising.’’ (IFC Films)
By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / July 30, 2010

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“Valhalla Rising’’ should get some sort of prize for mismarketing. The film’s turgid title, poster art, and promotional campaign promise nonstop Viking mayhem, a sort of Norse “300’’ wallowing in medieval macho gore. Unleash the berserkers and all that.

Instead, what the talented, unfocused young director Nicholas Winding Refn (“Bronson’’) has delivered is a violent but largely static art movie, one with overt nods to classic ’70s head-trips like “Aguirre: The Wrath of God’’ and “El Topo.’’ Fascinating for its gonzo formal daring and brooding attitude, “Valhalla’’ is still a trial for audiences seeking characters, plot, and things happening. The only entertainment you may have in connection with this movie is reading outraged online reviews posted by action-movie crybabies who didn’t get their testosterone.

It’s there, just doled out in inscrutable bursts. The year is 1000 AD. Danish star Mads Mikkelsen (who got his start in Refn’s “Pusher’’ back in 1996) has one of his most totemic roles as One-Eye, a mute warrior kept in a cage by a local chief and brought out for arranged fights that are muddy, bloody, and brief. Where’s One-Eye from? Is he any relation to the Norse god Odin? And why does he keep having crimson Doomsday flash-forwards? Refn isn’t saying, and there won’t be a quiz.

After a disemboweling or two, One-Eye and the young boy (Maarten Stevenson) who has become his ward and translator join up with a group of Christian Vikings led by a war-hungry fanatic who dreams of glory in the Crusades. Their boat takes a right turn in a mist, though, and the soldiers find themselves wandering in circles in the New World, arrows appearing from nowhere to pierce their throats.

Shot largely in the Scottish highlands, “Valhalla Rising’’ has a starkly beautiful visual sensibility that shifts from the grim Wagnerian peaks of the early scenes to the bright, leafy clarity of the sequences in North America. The soundtrack of droning avant-metal provides further atmospherics as well as a link to Popol Vuh, Werner Herzog’s house band back in the 1970s. The homages don’t stop there: One-Eye is a figure out of a Sergio Leone western, and the vision of would-be conquerors adrift in a land they can’t understand owes as much to Terrence Malick’s “The New World’’ as Herzog’s “Aguirre.’’

If only the pieces added up to an experience that sticks and that didn’t finally succumb to a shrug of entropy. As anyone who saw last year’s scarifying “Bronson’’ knows, this filmmaker is obsessed with extreme masculinity and its discontents. “Valhalla Rising,’’ though, is the work of an artist temporarily out of ideas and coasting on his influences. That he can make creative exhaustion seem gripping — and parts of this movie are undeniable — is proof he’ll be back, and in force.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. For more on movies, go to www.boston.com/movienation.

VALHALLA RISING

Directed by: Nicolas Winding Refn

Written by: Refn and Roy Jacobsen

Starring: Mads Mikkelsen, Maarten Stevenson

At: Brattle Theatre

Running time: 93 minutes

Unrated (as R: occasional graphic brain-bashing and disembowelment)

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