Audiences who were summoned to the theater by advertisements that made this seem like a Viking adventure akin to The 13th Warrior will be disappointed. This is a slow, hallucinatory and cerebral cadence toward oblivion. It is a sustained poem, recalling Stalker, Aguirre and especially Tony Stone’s Severed Ways. Myth is the propulsive force and the object of study and it’s political in an epically symbolic way. Norse missionaries headed toward the Holy Land accidentally arrive in primitive Canada. The leader of these mercenaries wants to establish a new Jerusalem among the natives, but he doesn’t get very far. His idea of a mission includes scarring the countryside with crosses and building a city on the bones of heathens.
This is worth seeing for its spellbinding photography alone. Refn seems to take better advantage of the widescreen aspect ratio here than most filmmakers these days and the over-saturated red landscapes of One-Eye’s hallucinations are striking and may influence others. If the duty of a poet is to preserve myth, to make monuments of the human experience, to reiterate the one story which is every story then Refn is a film-poet in the Northern European tradition. Here he basically retells the story of Odin through a character that comes to be known as One-Eye.
Mads Mikkelsen is necessarily stony. He is given no dialogue and nothing to emote beyond a seething will to be. His character begins Part I in captivity, forced to do battle against other captives for who knows how long. His captors are clansmen who pit their slaves against one another for profit; we see after one skirmish a servant bring from the losing chieftain to the victor something that sounds like the rattle of coins. After a vicious hand-to-hand battle that our hero wins with his own tether—the other man untethered—he rests on his haunches and marries his wrists in resignation, ready to be manacled again after performing his duties. Aside from fighting and bathing he lives every moment in a cage chained to the side of a cliff; a fair-haired boy brings him drink and meager protein and seems to look at him with a pitiful empathy. The boy will be spared. The captive has a premonition that will aid his escape. While bathing he notices a steel arrowhead buried in mossen rock and collects it with his mouth. Part II ends with his escape and vile retribution against his captors. The boy follows him over the hills where they meet a Christian camp, littered with slain pagans and wooden crosses. A Christian war party is on the eve of embarking for the Holy Land and the newly-christened One-Eye is recruited.
There’s nothing in the way of concrete dialogue. Characters speak in even, monotone spurts that reveal little and seem to be spoken not so much to other characters but at us. Refn repeatedly confines his characters to the extreme left or right of the frame, and speech is either confined in this way or totally offscreen or given in extreme close-up. Even when characters speak and we see their lips move, the sound edit makes their voices seem disembodied. One-Eye himself is mute so the lad speaks for him; he seems to be in a realm of death where he can absorb but can’t emote. At first his sole preoccupation is that of escaping his confines and enacting vengeance. With this accomplished he becomes the boy’s protector. He has no ambition and seems content with drifting along with the missionary party. Not until the party loses its nerve and attacks him does he break with it. Yet his precognitive hallucinations imply that there is a mission beneath the silent veneer, and all heat and motion is directed toward its consummation. For the hallucinations Refn chose to sample images from scenes that occur later, so in the film’s context we are glimpsing the future as if behind the glassy eye of Odin’s raven.
The boy tells the war party that One-Eye hails from Hell, which must have meant the cold North, and also “somewhere over the sea”, implying the Arctic Circle, otherwise known as Hyperborea. These are places associated with death and particularly the slain warrior-king. Be it supposed that One-Eye is the reincarnation of a warrior-king? The party certainly comes to think so. But when one considers what actually takes place in the film, Hell would seem to be the cities. Not once in the film is there a clear, visual indicator of wider civilization, of commerce or influence outside of the spare warrior-bands that haunt the barren cliffs of Scotland. The clothes that all wear were obviously composed by skilled hands in some city. And the boy is present—he obviously was born of woman, not farted out by one of these ogres—yet there are no women, and no connection is made.
These places have all the trappings of purgatory. The one force that seems to braid this world to another is that of the cross-bearing Christians, and the acknowledgment by the pagan chieftains of their destructive influence. The fact that One-Eye assumes the mantle of a demigod, the indefatigable warrior whose multi-planar vision grants him access to the fates, is a grave indication that this is indeed the product of a macabre imagination. One-Eye’s new owner tells his old that no one has ever possessed him longer than five years; our hero appears to be at most a man of forty so this is yet another indication that what we are seeing is more elemental than human.
I think where this film fails is also where it succeeds. Refn clearly wanted to make something that accompanies a bender, a binge of psychedelics or a yoga class, in other words a 90-minute music video. He even made a point of dividing it unnecessarily into something like six parts. But it excels if one is in the proper state. Personally, I was fighting sleep with caffeine so it worked for me. Otherwise, it drags like a freighter sailing over the coastline. Forfeited toward this end were characters and story. If you can endure a characterless drama for 90 minutes then I applaud you. On the surface this resembles 2001: A Space Odyssey’s drifting melancholia, but Kubrick was plumbing the depths of semiotics while Refn genuinely wants to tell a story, trying his best to play against the rules while doing so. One-Eye comes across a band of crusading Christian warriors and unexpectedly travels peaceably with them; they get lost at sea and unexpectedly wash up in the New World, then unexpectedly dawdle in the wilderness and are slowly driven insane by hunger. His storytelling decisions are admirable in that they never go where you expect them to, especially if you keep expecting a good ole blood-soaked Viking tale.