IT'S IMPOSSIBLE—or at the very least, shall we say, not ideal—to talk about Nicolas Winding Refn without talking about Bronson, the Danish filmmaker's badass film about Charles Bronson. (No, not that Charles Bronson—Refn's 2009 flick is about an outlandish British prisoner who took Bronson's name, who's spent most of his life in prison, and who gets shoutouts in the Guardian as "the self-styled 'most violent prisoner in Britain.'") Vivid and scary and funny, Bronson featured a phenomenal performance from Tom Hardy, AKA the British dude from Inception my girlfriend won't shut up about, and was one of last year's best films.
Bronson also owed a fairly large debt to Kubrick. Refn's latest, Valhalla Rising, feels less Kubrickian and more like Herzog—it's hard not to flashback to Aguirre: The Wrath of God during this tale of vikings slowly going mad. With minimal dialogue, Valhalla Rising plays at a pace that makes Terrence Malick look like spaz: It's 1000 AD, and the mute, aptly named One Eye (Mads Mikkelsen) is imprisoned by vikings who make him fight other prisoners. (One Eye also has the occasional prophetic dream, but that skill pales compared to his ability to crush skulls and rip out guts.) Escaping, One Eye teams up with a young boy, Are (Maarten Stevenson); the duo then join some Christian vikings who're heading to the Holy Land. Except they get lost, and then they start to go crazy, and then they end up doing some less-than-Christian things to each other.
Even at only 90 minutes, Valhalla Rising feels drawn out—perhaps Refn's aiming to capture the pace of pre-industrial life, but it feels more like he just doesn't have enough story and character. Shot, occasionally stunningly, in a bruised palette of blacks, grays, browns, and greens, it all feels suitably authentic, but never all that interesting. Unlike in Bronson, here Refn keeps a grim, clinical distance: blood soaks into mud, men stare meaningfully into the distance, everyone's miserable, life is horrible, annnd... scene. Refn's definitely a filmmaker to watch, but I'm not convinced the same can be said for his movie about bloody, mopey vikings.