Take-Up Productions continues to spread the filmic love for Minneapolis cinephiles with its latest new series, Trylon Premiere Tuesdays, which showcases a Twin Cities premiere of a new film on the second and fourth Tuesday of the month at the Trylon Microcinema. Spearheaded by Minneapolis film blogger Kathie Smith (my co-host on KFAI's Cinema Shanty), the series starts strong with Valhalla Rising, a graphic, brooding Viking tale that will surely show up on my year-end top ten list.
Smith says the idea for the series was born out of a brainstorming session in regard to Jean-Luc Godard's latest, Film Socialisme, which has no US distribution, and whether or not Take-Up could find a way to screen it in the Twin Cities. (The famous French New Wave auteur has already been the subject of a tribute series at the Trylon.) "I thought the bigger question was, could we carve out some space within our regular repertory programming to screen new releases, like Film Socialisme, that don't get picked up theatrically in the Twin Cities."
At the moment, Smith says, the plan is to pick one film a month, but eventually they may move to two films a month, if the series goes well. "Basically we are looking at things that haven't and probably won't play in the Twin Cities," she said. "Anything that has already been played, even if it is just once, we are not really interested in."
That certainly rings true for Valhalla Rising, without doubt a fresh, under-the-radar gem that could easily become a future cult classic in the vein of Alejandro Jodorowsky's El Topo (1970) and The Holy Mountain (1973). It screens November 9 and 23, at 7:00 and 8:50 p.m. both nights. The folks at Minnesota Film Arts couldn't decide what to do with the film, for the better part of this year trying to find a slot to screen it at St. Anthony Main, which never came to fruition. (To be fair, though, they've been hard at work on their new Asian Film Festival, going on now until November 13.) Attempts were made by the good folks at the Uptown Theatre to screen Valhalla Rising as part of their Midnight Madness series, but to no avail.
Surely, this is the kind of film for which the saying "It's not for everyone" was invented. If you enjoy the cinema of sensory experience, where striking visuals and ambient music create mood and atmosphere, this is the film for you. There are camera shots guaranteed to linger in your mind well after you leave the theater, tones and feelings that will play on a loop in your memory. The narrative for Valhalla Rising is cryptic enough to incite a stimulating discussion afterwards, but the film asks a lot of the audience, trusting them to pay attention and give in to the experience of watching it.
But that's not to suggest it's some bizarre, indecipherable experimental piece. This is more in line with the genre fare of Stanley Kubrick and Andrey Tarkovsky, a heady mix of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Stalker. It's a Viking film, and if anyone can name a good film in this genre, please say so in the comments, because I've yet to find one—until now.
Valhalla Rising is co-written and directed by one of world cinema's most exciting and talented young filmmakers, Nicolas Winding Refn, from Denmark—the man behind the amazing Pusher Trilogy and last year's Bronson, which made it on my top ten for 2009 (it's available on Netflix Watch Instantly), featuring a standout performance by soon-to-be Hollywood star Tom Hardy (he stole the show in Inception, is the new Mad Max, and will appear in a major role in Christopher Nolan's third Batman film, titled The Dark Knight Rises). Refn is a genre stylist of the highest order, comfortable with and capable of making any type of film. He's getting his first strong shot at Hollywood success: he's currently shooting Drive, set for release in the fall of 2011 and starring Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, and a host of top-notch character actors like Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad), Albert Brooks, and Ron Perlman.
Following a mute warrior called One Eye, played by the wonderful Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen (who you may remember as the baddie in Casino Royale, the guy who cried tears of blood), Valhalla Rising is a transformative journey into hell. In the film's opening chapter, pagans are holding One Eye captive, using him as entertainment. He's an unbeatable gladiator: his captors watch as he defeats everyone they pit him against in muddy, vicious brawls. After gaining his freedom, One Eye joins up with a group of Christian Vikings in search of a New Jerusalem. They travel by ship into a heart of darkness that would make Francis Ford Coppola proud. One Eye, whose only concern is for that of the young boy who named him ("because you have one eye") and speaks for him, has premonitions. The Christians end up following him, which proves to be a terrible mistake on their part.
That plot synopsis suffices, but doesn't do the film justice at all. Again, this is a film infused with dread. Its mood is that of a psychedelic nightmare. It's all about the feeling you get when watching it. The credits set the tone right away, and I'd bet that fans of the film will instantly know that they will dig it from the very first minute, as the loud, dissonant music by Peter Kyed and Peter Peter (who's worked with Refn before, on the first Pusher film and his follow-up, Bleeder) engulfs your ear drums (hopefully the Trylon speakers are turned to 11 for this one), and white text appears on the black screen:
IN THE BEGINNING THERE WAS
ONLY MAN AND NATURE
MEN CAME BEARING CROSSES
AND DROVE THE HEATHEN
TO THE FRINGES OF THE EARTH
The music swells as the title is revealed, floating towards the screen in red text, in that very specific hue, like the color of 1970s movie blood: VALHALLA RISING. Instantly you are hit with a sense of foreboding, as if some kind of spiritual, demonic evil exists in the print of the film. Its palpable religious themes and Refn's myth-making aspirations are laid out with the first title card. The film is broken up in to six chapters:
PART I: WRATH
PART II: SILENT WARRIOR
PART III: MEN OF GOD
PART IV: THE HOLY LAND
PART V: HELL
PART VI: THE SACRIFICE
We watch as One Eye cuts through fighters like butter. Men brutally punishing their bodies and beating the living shit out of each other has always fascinated Refn. The violence in his films is always brutal; you feel every punch, gunshot, and impalement. Valhalla is no different, but the Danish filmmaker has made his most graphic film to date. Brains are bashed in, throats and ankles sliced, and a man is gutted, literally, before our eyes. One of the most memorable pieces of onscreen violence in quite some time sees One Eye, in one of his many fights early on, using a thick rope to hastily snap the neck of an opponent.
Director of photography Morten Søborg, whose worked with Refn on all of his films except for Bronson and Fear X, as well as with the other current elite Danish filmmaker Susanne Bier (Open Heats, After the Wedding), does brilliant work in Valhalla Rising. He uses the Red One digital camera to capture the foggy, desolate Scottish highlands, but the postproduction work, especially with the color grading, is a marvel. Søborg uses color changes, desaturated visuals, and slow motion to effectively convey the film's mood. The trippy, haunting visuals, mixed with the music that takes Donnie Darko ambience and mixes it with the buildup and climax of The Fountain score.
This is saying a lot, since Refn has already made several great films already, but Valhalla Rising is one of his best. If not the best, it's right behind Pusher 2. It still feels like a Refn work, but it's also a departure from what he's known for, showing his chameleonic prowess as a filmmaker. Thankfully, the Trylon came through and got this film, as it begs to be seen in a theater.
I'll end with Kathie Smith's thoughts on the film, and the new series at the Trylon: "It was pretty clear that no one was going to screen Valhalla Rising theatrically. Nicolas Winding Refn is certainly a director to watch, and his films deserve to be seen on a format other than your television. This is especially the case with Valhalla, which is incredibly atmospheric. I would also argue that this is a film to see with an audience so you can turn to someone after the film and ask, ‘What the hell was that?' As far as why no one else is showing it, I think it just comes down to marketability. Valhalla is pretty violent at some moments, and pretty abstract at others. I think the Trylon might be a perfect venue for niche films like these, but I also think that audiences, given the chance, like to be challenged and don't necessarily like to be marketed to."
As for other films Take-Up is looking at, Smith said, "There are really lots of options—more than we could ever play." Some of the titles on their radar for future editions of the new series include Amer, Four Lions, Samson and Delilah, Tiny Furniture, Red Hill, and Cold Fish.
Erik McClanahan is a freelance film journalist and critic in Minneapolis. He is also co-host of KFAI's Movie Talk.