The introductory text at the beginning of "Valhalla Rising" both sets the scene and describes it. "In the beginning, there was only man and nature," we're told, and in this era -- 1,000 A.D., to be precise -- men bearing crosses drove the heathen to "the fringes of the earth." A blood-soaked chronicle of a mute Scandinavian wanderer (Mads Mikkelsen) and warmongering religious zealots, the movie repeatedly sticks to its nimble outline. In fact, "the fringes" could serve as an alternate title for this spare, unnerving period piece, as it unleashes a series of grimly expressive compositions that often seem like refugees from Goya paintings.
Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn solidified a penchant for psychological chaos with his elaborate "Pusher" trilogy of gangster stories and the deranged criminal portrait "Bronson." With "Valhalla Rising," he trades the precision of well-crafted plot and character for an elaborate cinematic tone poem. His central figure, an incessantly oppressed introvert prone to ferocious outbreaks of violent self-defense, has a phantom-like quality that positions him as a product of the morose environment. Desolate, foggy and caked with mud, the landscapes melt together to the point where more than one character wonders if they might have wandered into hell.
Despite the historical backdrop, nothing in "Valhalla Rising" dispels the notion that it may indeed take place in a hell on earth. When we first meet the silent anti-hero, eventually dubbed "One-Eye" due to a grotesque scar filling one of his sockets, he's a slave of brutish Scotsmen intent on forcing their captives to engage in lethal battles. Within minutes, One-Eye's uncontainable power gets put on full display as the swift acts of disemboweling and decapitation puts the man back in control of his own destiny.
Heading off through the hazy no-man's land with a young fellow slave (Maarten Stevenson) as his self-appointed sidekick and vocal ambassador, One-Eye runs into a band of Christian Vikings aiming to invade Jerusalem. Unfortunately, they don't seem to know much about navigation, and the journey to nowhere continues. One-Eye's newest companions turn into his latest enemies, providing yet another opportunity to showcase his killer talents. Bodies fall, One-Eye reasserts his authority, and the journey to nowhere continues. Ad infinitum.
To dismiss Refn's repetitive approach as tedious would miss the poetic undulations of his elegantly minimalist exercise. Despite the rampant gore, "Valhalla Rising" conveys a far more muted ambience than anything else in his rapidly expanding oeuvre. Operating in near-theatrical mode for a majority of the running time, with barren outdoor sets and only the vaguest outlines of a plot, Refn's filmmaking prowess routinely dominates the experience: The dark imagery flows together, a desolate soundtrack underscoring the dread, weaved together with dialogue that rarely rises above a whisper. The camera lingers on Mikkelsen's face, foregrounding his performance even though he spends most of the movie acting like a statue.
The starkness of "Valhalla" is hardly an unfamiliar milieu. As One-Eye and his adolescent companion drift through an empty world, echoes of Cormac McCarthy's "The Road" and other post-apocalyptic roadtrips come to mind. One-Eye, wearing a scar that's far more frightening than the campy facial burn sported by Josh Brolin in "Jonah Hex," suggests a primitive version of Clint Eastwood's Man with No Name. Later, as the Vikings endure an aimless trip through misty waters and gradually lose their minds, it's impossible not to think of the similarly ill-fated quest in "Aguirre: Wrath of God."
But while Refn's method is steeped in pastiche, at least he uses it for his own high concept intentions. Tony Stone's D.I.Y. epic "Severed Ways: The Norse Discovery of America" did a better job with turning Viking characters into figures of sympathy, but Refn uses them as effective symbols of religious fever reaching its breaking point. Saying nothing and doing little, One-Eye routinely elicits paranoia from his hesitate guides, allowing their mania to function as a weapon of self-destruction.
Given the extreme nature of the violence and the mood, Refn appears exceptionally adroit at avoiding B-movie turf where the context practically invites it. (The forthcoming medieval Roman thriller "Centurion" applies a silly grindhouse feel that Refn nimbly rejects.) The plot crawls along, sometimes coming to a complete halt as pure atmosphere takes over. Refn conveys the palpable sense of an alien environment, as if the viewer were experiencing a window into harsher times, although he never quite finds a full-bodied story to stabilize the mood.
One-Eye's lean adventure unfolds in chapters, all of which harbor equal levels of restraint -- sometimes too much of it. There's little difference between the tone of the first part, titled "Wrath," and the second, titled "Men of God," save for the specific ideological persuasions of the people he encounters (but even those blur together). Redundancy is the biggest threat to the spell Refn starts building from the very first frame, but the gloominess has a purpose. A final symbolic shot suggests that One-Eye represents the primal nature of humanity as a force more unkillable than the man himself. It's the final chilly nail in a feature-length coffin.