Love, Hate, And Vengeance: An Analysis Of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, And Views Are My Game.

I won’t lie, the first time I saw Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives, it really pissed me off. It wasn’t just the frequent use of racial slurs, and protracted, highly gory torture scenes that bothered me. It was, well, everything. The one-dimensional characters, bizarre dream sequences, unsatisfying ending, and heavily implied incestuous relationship between the main character and his mother all added up to an utterly unpleasant viewing experience. The first time I saw it, I sympathized 100% with the half of the audience at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival who either walked out or booed when this movie was shown. To put it bluntly, I hated it, and told myself that I would never watch, or even speak of, it again.

And yet, as much as I despised the picture, I couldn’t get it out of my head. It was like a tiny piece of gum stuck to my trousers–try as I might, it just wouldn’t go away. And the longer I thought about the movie, the more I came to appreciate it. I was drawn to it, particularly to its vibrant colors, haunting visuals, narrative subtlety and strong mythological undertones. With every mental revisitation, I uncovered something new to appreciate until, without realizing, I found myself liking–yes, liking–it. It’s not that I’d forgotten about all my old complaints, if anything, my newfound appreciation for the picture made me pick at those aspects I didn’t like more, but at least now I had some good with which to balance the bad. I could finally understand why, when it was screened at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, half the audience, the half that wasn’t booing it, gave it a standing ovation. I had stumbled upon one of those rare pieces of cinema which left it’s spectators with absolutely no middle ground. Either you loved it, or you hated it with a passion so great, so burning, as to melt the ice caps.

But what is Only God Forgives? What, in the end, does this divisive piece of cinema really boil down to?

Thematically, it boils down to a story of a broken man wanting to take vengeance on God for making him suffer so greatly, but, in doing so, finding redemption. Literally, though, it’s the story of Julian, an American ex-pat living in Bangkok. He owns a Muy THai club, but it’s quickly revealed that that’s just a front for a drug-smuggling operation. Julian doesn’t talk much, and his interactions with other people are pretty much limited to his sessions with Mai, a prostitute who he seems to have some feelings for, and his conversations with Billy, his brother, who’s a sadistic pervert. How sadistic and perverse is he? Well, at the start of the movie, he rapes and kills a thirteen-year-old girl. Yeah. Charming. Don’t worry, though. We don’t have to deal with him for long, because he is quickly apprehended by the Thai police, and the mysterious Inspector Chang is brought in to investigate the matter. Upon seeing what Billy has done, Chang allows the girl’s father to beat him, but he ends up getting killed in the process. Chang, however, doesn’t care about Billy’s death. What he does care about is the fact that the girl’s father knew that she was a sex worker, and did nothing to stop it. For this, he cuts off the man’s forearm and leaves.

Upon hearing of Billy’s death, Julian tracks down the father and confronts him about why he killed his brother. When he learns that the man was simply avenging his daughter, however, he decides to let him go. Julian and Billy’s mother, Crystal, arrives in Bangkok to identify the body. She demands that Julian find and kill the men who killed Billy, but he refuses—believing that the man had some justification for seeking retribution for the killing of his daughter—infuriating her. Julian has several visions of meeting Chang in a dark room, where Chang cuts Julian’s hands off.

Julian brings Mai to meet Crystal, posing as his girlfriend. Crystal sees through the ruse, hurls insults at Mai, and demeans Julian, pronouncing him sexually inferior to his dead brother. Julian humbly accepts all of Crystal’s abuse, but afterward turns on Mai, viciously humiliating her, then regretting it. At Crystal’s request, one of the fighters at Julian’s boxing club assassinates the man who killed Billy. Later, the police arrive at Julian’s club, but Chang concludes that Julian is not the father’s killer. Julian recognizes Chang from his visions and follows him from the boxing club, but Chang seems to disappear into thin air.

After learning that Chang was involved in Billy’s death, Crystal meets with an associate, Byron, to arrange Chang’s assassination. Three gunmen on motorbike are sent to kill Chang at a restaurant with machine guns, and two of Chang’s men are killed in the shoot-out. Chang kills two of the gunmen, follows the third on foot, and beats him with a frying pan. The gunman leads Chang to his boss, Li Po, who is feeding his young crippled son. Chang then kills the third gunman, but spares Li Po after seeing him show affection for his son. Li Po points Chang to Byron, who ordered the hit. Chang finds Byron in a club and tortures him to get answers. Byron reveals the reasoning behind the hit, but refuses to give a name. Chang continues to torture Byron.

Julian confronts Chang and, after challenging him, they fight on the bare concrete floor of Julian’s boxing venue. Chang, an experienced boxer, easily beats Julian, who does not land any blows. Afterwards, Crystal tells Julian that Chang has figured out she ordered the hit on him. Fearfully, she pleads with Julian to kill Chang to protect her, the same way she asked Julian to kill his own father for her. She promises that after Julian kills Chang, they will go back home and she will be a true mother to him.

Julian shoots the guard outside Chang’s home, and he and his associate Charlie Ling enter Chang’s house, intent on ambushing him when he returns. Charlie informs Julian that he was instructed to execute Chang’s entire family. Charlie murders the nanny of Chang’s daughter as she enters the home, but Julian shoots Charlie before he can kill Chang’s young daughter.

Chang and a police officer visit Crystal. She blames everything on Julian, and Chang cuts her throat. Julian returns to the hotel and finds his mother’s corpse. In silence, he approaches her body and cuts open her abdomen. Julian slowly places his hand inside of the wound. After leaving and having several surreal visions, Julian stands in a field with Chang, who appears to cut off both of Julian’s hands with his sword. The final scene returns to Chang singing at a karaoke bar with an audience of attentive police officers.

Now, if you’re anything like me, at this point, you’re probably thinking, “What the hell? What did all that mean? Did that mean anything? Why did I just sit through that movie? Why do I feel so confused?” Well, if you are feeling that way, don’t worry. It’s perfectly normal to. I certainly did when I first saw this movie. But, unlike me, you all have someone who can explain this bizarre picture to you–who can help you get through all the confusion. And, if you’ll do me the great pleasure of reading onward, I shall strive to do both.

Now, as I stated earlier, I believe that this movie is about faith, about a man’s struggle’s with God given all that has happened to him. There are several reasons why I view the film this way. Firstly, the character of Inspector Chang. He is truly divine. Seriously! Never once in this film does anyone hit him, shoot him, or hurt him in anyway, which suggests that he’s invulnerable. In addition, there are several scenes in this movie where he just seems to teleport around. One minute he’s in one place, and then, in another, he’s somewhere totally different. On top of this, he appears to be the utmost authority in the land, passing judgment and dealing out punishment with total impunity, in much the same way that God does. But perhaps the greatest reasin why I see him as God is that, in an interview with the press, Vithaya Pansringram, the actor who played him, stated that Winding Refn directed his sequences with the following sentence, “You are God in this world.” So, yeah, it’s clear that we have a divine figure in this film, and that Chang is it.

The second reason why I view this movie as a damaged man’s struggle with the divine is the character of Julian. When you watch him, it is clear that he is just a broken shell. His quietness, his violent outbursts, the fact that he can’t actually have sex–yeah, whenever he goes to see Mai, he just sits there and watches her touch herself–all indicate that he’s not completely sane, and that he’s suffering greatly. And yet, there is still some hope fort him. He feels guilt after exploding at Mai. He refuses to kill Chang’s young daughter, and the man who murdered Billly. This all indicates that he does still possess some semblance of a moral compass, and the fact that he keeps following Chang, and has visions about him, suggests that maybe, like the prodigal son, he is looking for some forgiveness, some divine guidance. This, I think, is why the title of the movie is Only God Forgives–because it is about someone looking to be forgiven for his crimes.

“But how,” you might ask, “does Chang forgive Julian? I mean, doesn’t he cut off his hands?” Well, if you really analyze the film, you come to realize that that is actually a form of forgiveness.

See, hands are a recurring motif in the movie. Chang cuts off several people’s hands, Julian has a vision in which he sees himself washing blood off them, he has his hands tied whenever he visits Mai, Crystal says he killed his father with his bare hands, etc. Hands represent people’s guilt in this world. For most characters, having their hands cut off is a form of punishment, but for Julian, it is a kind of relief. See, it is highly implied that he was forced into having an incestuous relationship with his Mother, and that she then used this relationship to gain power over him and get him to do things for her, like kill his own father. This is all suggested by the fact that Crystal talks about the size of his penis, gropes his behind, and says to him, “if you do this for me, we can go back home, and I’ll be a true mother to you.” Julian’s stoicism, impotence, violent temper, and the fact that he keeps hallucinating that there is blood on his hands all indicates that he is traumatized by his past deeds, and that he wants to rid himself of them. So, when Julian lets Chang cut off his hands at the end of the movie, it is an act of catharsis. It is Julian finally being able to rid himself of the past. This is all indicated by the fact that Julian and Chang smile when they meet for the last time, as though this is a good thing, a form of therapy.

So, there you have it. Only God Forgives, a surreal, violent, racist, and utterly nonsensical crime thriller is actually a touching character study about a broken man looking for divine forgiveness. It’s excessive bloodshed and strange dialogue might not appeal to everyone, but the saturated neon color scheme, the gorgeous cinematography, and most of all, the themes, are what make it truly unique, and, in my opinion, worthy of an 8 out of 10. I honestly believe that this will be a picture that, down the line, film students and cinephiles will analyze and talk about. It’s beautiful, brutal, and brimming with life and subtext. And who wouldn’t want to see a film like that?

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Conclusion of Nicolas Winding Refn Month

As the month of April draws to a close, so too does my little project. For those of you who are unfamiliar with it, I told my readership at the start of this month that, for the next four weeks, I would watch and review only those films made by Denmark’s most talented director, Nicolas Winding Refn. The reason I decided to do this is that I really really enjoy Winding Refn’s work, and I wanted to share his films with the world so that they might garner greater recognition. If any of you are fans of talented, lesser known artists, and would like me to see their stuff, please tell me their names and I’ll do just that. Anything to help aspiring stars reach their full potential.

Thank you all for reading my blog,

Nathan

Bronson: So Who Says Prison Can’t Be An Enjoyable Experience?

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, And Views Are My Game.

With it’s bizarre visuals, odd, non-linear narrative structure, and hard to pin-point characters, it is very difficult to say for certain what kind of a film Bronson is. It’s about a real person, but it’s not a documentary. It’s main character is an extremely violent individual, and yet very little blood is seen throughout the movie. It’s set up like a morality tale, and yet absolutely no morals are imparted in it. In fact, the film becomes so absurd in some scenes, like the one where the main character kidnaps his art teacher, paints himself black and then puts an apple in the hostage’s mouth, that one starts to wonder if it’s really worth continuing with this rubbish. I will say this, though. For all it’s confusing features, Nicolas Winding Refn’s Bronson is still a highly enjoyable, highly original audio-visual experience. I’d heard various critics describe it as “A Clockwork Orange for the 21st century,” and now, having seen it for myself, I can understand why they’d say that.

For those of you who don’t recognize this picture, Bronson is a 2008 fictionalized biographical drama directed by Nicolas Winding Refn and starring
Tom Hardy. It tells the story of Michael Peterson (aka Charlie Bronson), a convicted felon who has earned a notorious reputation as Britain’s most violent prisoner. I’d never heard of him beforehand, but now, having learned something of his various escapades, I can understand why he might be thought of that way.

The film is set up in a rather unusual manner. It presents several assorted points from Bronson’s life, intercut with him on stage before an audience in several stages of performance make-up, and speaking directly to camera while seemingly behind bars. Like A Clockwork Orange, the film juxtaposes highly intense, violent imagery with gentle, classical-sounding audio. You’re constantly reminded that what you’re watching is a movie, and never led to believe that any of what’s happening is real. In fact, were it not for the tagline, “based on a true story,” and my own research into Charlie Bronson’s existence, I would have sworn to you that this film was pure fiction. And you know what, I actually feel like that worked to the movie’s advantage. Most biopics try extremely hard to make themselves believable, and in so doing, set themselves up for criticism when they inevitably portray events or people inaccurately. Bronson, by contrast, exults in the fact that it is fiction by being extremely outrageous, which is actually quite fitting, since it is telling the story of an extremely outrageous man. Likewise, the movie’s lack of a moral center makes it more enjoyable. With it’s prison setting, violent main character, and classification as “A Clockwork Orange for the 21st century,” one might be led to believe that Bronson is a searing condemnation of society’s attempts to get everyone to conform to a certain behavioral standard by breaking the human spirit. And I will admit, there were several points in the story where I felt as though the movie was going down that path–like the scene where a fellow inmate says, “You’re no more mad than I am, and that scares them,” and the fact that the final shot shows a weak and wounded Bronson standing in a phone-booth sized cell–but the film never falls pray to the “look for the hidden meaning” monster. No one in the film ever tries to “change” Bronson, at least, not in the way that they tried to change Alex in A Clockwork Orange or McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The main character never seems disheartened by his situation. If anything, he seems to rather like it. He declares, numerous times throughout the film, his absolute love for prison, likening it to a hotel room, and even going so far as to strangle a sympathetic asylum inmate in order to ensure his return there. If there is a message to be taken from this film, it is that some people are just crazy, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

So, is Bronson really worth taking the time to watch? Absolutely! From it’s unique cinematography, to it’s enthralling soundtrack, to its self-aware absurdity and odd narrative voice, Bronson is a highly unique audio-visual experience that’s extremely enjoyable. Even if you don’t like prison movies or actors like Tom Hardy, this film is still a triumph, and on many levels. Some other critics might beg to differ, but I would go so far as to give this film an 8 out of 10. Hands down, one of the best pictures I’ve seen this year.

So, Why Is Drive Nicolas Winding Refn’s Most Popular Movie?

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, And Views Are My Game.

For years, whenever I heard the name Drive, all I could ask myself was “why?” Why did Nicolas Winding Refn, a director infamous for making morbid movies with ultra-masculine main characters, choose a pretty boy pansy like Ryan Gosling to be his lead? Why was Drive, an incredibly formulaic neo-noir crime thriller, met with such critical acclaim and box office boom? And finally, why was this, out of all of Winding Refn’s projects, the most successful? I mean, seriously, what’s so special about it? What aspect of this film is so daring, so visionary, as to catapult its director from an obscure art-house risk-taker to a Hollywood A-lister? Why didn’t any of Refn’s earlier successes, like Bronson or The Pusher Trilogy, hit it big as well? For that matter, why didn’t Valhalla Rising? I mean, after all, it’s an incredibly well-crafted surrealist nightmare of a movie. Shouldn’t something like that also garner critical recognition?

Well, having finally taken the time to sit down and watch Drive, all I can say in response to those earlier questions is, “because that’s what makes it awesome.” Yes, Drive‘s story is incredibly formulaic, yes, Ryan Gosling is not your typical tough guy, and yes, there are other Winding Refn films that are both more original and more thought provoking. Even so, Drive is still a well-paced, well-acted, visually-striking work of art that’s definitely worth taking the time to watch. A solid 8.5 in my opinion. And you know what’s really weird? Many of the movie’s faults actually worked to its advantage. How? Well, perhaps I should take a step bak and explain a few things.

You see, as hard as each individual might try to keep his or herself free from the chains of classification, everyone inevitably has a niche, something that they’re both good at and interested in. This truth holds particular weight among artists, especially filmmakers. As hard as they might try to keep us, the audience, guessing,we can’t help but notice certain motifs in their work. People who go into an M Night Shyamalan movie, for instance, do so with the expectation of seeing a story with a weird twist ending. Similarly, audiences have since come to accept the lurid bloodshed, 70s style soundtracks, and snappy dialogue of Tarantino pictures to be trademarks. Nicolas Winding Refn is likewise no exception to the directorial rule of niches. Several of his films share a number of strikingly similar characteristics, including a dark, brooding tone, a conspicuous lack of dialogue, a saturated color scheme and, of course, a gratuitous amount of graphic violence. Now, when I say “graphic violence,” I’m not referring to over-the-top, Quentin Tarantino-type cartoonish violence, or even the semi-pornographic stuff you might expect to see in an Eli Roth or Wes Craven film. I’m talking Mads Mikkelsen disemboweling a guy with his bare hands violence. I’m talking Ryan Gosling crushing a dude’s face with the heel of his shoe violence. I’m talking Vithaya Pansringarm impaling a person to a chair with a pair of chopsticks and then gouging out his eyes violence. And yet, despite all the carnage that unfolds before the camera in his films, Nicolas Winding Refn’s pictures are anything but torture porn. Many of his projects possess extremely profound moral or philosophical messages, usually having to do with religion or sexuality, and many more have strong mythological undertones. The characters in his films are less believable, flesh and blood individuals as they are archetypes or embodiments of various concepts he’s trying to get across. Tom Hardy’s character in Bronson, for instance, is a representation of the raw, animalistic impulses and desires that dwell within each of us, while Vithaya Pansringarm in Only God Forgives symbolizes the blind, merciless and unstoppable force of justice.

But what, you might be wondering, does all this talk of niches have to do with the success of Drive? Well, I’ll tell you. Drive is one of the only films which Nicolas Winding Refn chose to do in a manner that was unfamiliar to him. Instead of writing and directing an original screenplay, he chose to adapt a pre-existing novel. Instead of producing a picture with little to no dialogue, he made a movie with lots and lots of it. Instead of casting little known actors whom he felt could convey the themes he wanted, he decided to go with mainstream Hollywood stars. And finally, rather than make an original, thought-provoking movie with an underlying message, he decided to give us a piece of predictable, processed entertainment. Seriously! The whole story boils down to, stuntman-slash-getaway driver tries to help single mother, hyjinx ensues. It’s your basic crook finds redemption by helping others plot that we’ve seen so many times before–with Han Solo in Star Wars, Danny Archer in Blood Diamond, Wikus van der Merwe in District 9–that I’m kind of surprised people still want to watch it. But, back to my original point, when Nicolas Winding Refn decided to direct Drive, he also decided not to make a Nicolas Winding Refn picture. Oh sure, the movie still had some of his fingerprints on it–the main character is highly stoic, there’s a lot of onscreen violence, and most of the images have a surreal color scheme–but the heart of his work wasn’t present. As a result, the movie was more approachable to audiences and more comprehensible to critics. Basically, Drive was successful because it had a recognizable face in the lead, because it was incredibly easy to follow, and because there was nothing profound about it whatsoever, proving, once again, my theory that the principle that governs all American cinema is pulp crap = pure cash.

That’s what I think, anyway. If you disagree, don’t hesitate to say so. Alright, goodbye everybody. I hope you all enjoyed your spring breaks. This is Nathan Liu, signing off.

Attention All Fans Of Nicolas Winding Refn!

For the next month, I will be watching, reviewing and analyzing only the contributions to cinema of this talented Danish filmmaker. Since I’m always looking to meet fellow cinephiles, and his movies tend to center around some esoteric philosophical statement that requires analysis to unravel, I would ask all Winding Refn fans on the internet to read and comment on my blog. Not only that, I would ask that these individuals contact me personally to make suggestions as to which projects of his I should watch next.

Thank you all in advance for your in-put,

Nathan Liu

P.S. My e-mail address, for any of you who might be wondering, is nathan.liu@verizon.net

War And God: An Analysis of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising.

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, And Views Are My Game.

Epic, eerie, dark, disturbing; these are the first words that come to mind when I hear the name Valhalla Rising. A Danish picture, shot in English with Scottish actors, this 2009 film has been described by some critics as a “cinematic sojourn through hell.” I don’t know if I’d go so far as to call it that, but I do know that, with its haunting visuals, hypnotic soundtrack, and harrowing explorations into the themes of war, religion, greed and nation building, Valhalla Rising is a fascinating, surrealist nightmare of a movie.

Not to suggest that it’s free of flaws. Valhalla Rising falls far short of perfection in several areas. Its extremely violent, poorly acted, and many of the characters lack depth or back-story. But the weaknesses of the film, or even the strengths, (I’d give the movie an overall rating of 7 out of 10), are not what I want to discuss here today. I’m not, strictly speaking, writing a review. Why? Because I’ve always wanted to write an in-depth analysis of a movie, and Valhalla Rising is one of those films that’s so strange, so nebulous, that you can’t help but analyze it. It has very little dialogue, and instead relies on atmosphere to convey story and character. A film like that is just begging its viewers to draw their own conclusions as to the meaning of its content. Well, I’ve watched the film, thought about it deeply, drawn my own conclusions, and if you will do me the great honor of reading further, I would like to share just a few of my ideas with you.

Before I go on, however, I feel like I should explain a few details. They might seem pretty trivial now, but had I not had them lurking in the back of my mind when I saw this film, I might have had a totally different reaction to it. First, for those of you who aren’t familiar with Nordic Mythology, Valhalla is the Hall of Odin, the one-eyed king of the gods. People went to Valhalla after death if, during life, they had been great warriors. The reason why only warriors could go to Valhalla is that Odin, as well as all the other gods, was mortal, and so needed as many skilled soldiers as possible to defend him in the last great universe-destroying battle with the forces of evil. Second, it is widely believed among historians that the first people to set foot on North America, after the Native Americans, were a group of Vikings led by a man named Lief Erikson. Thirdly, in his acclaimed Revisionist Western, Blood Meridian, author Cormac McCarthy writes, “War is God.” There! Now I think you know enough to go on.

Anyway, Valhalla Rising is a ninety minute epic divided into six episodic parts; Wrath, Silent Warrior, Men of God, The Holy Land, Hell, and The Sacrifice. The film opens with a brief prologue, which states that, at the dawn of time, there was mankind and nature, and then warriors bearing crosses drove the heathen to the fringes of the Earth. The movie then fades into a wide shot of a cold, mist-covered highland, and it is in this desolate landscape that we are introduced to our hero, a mysterious mute warrior known only as One-Eye. He has been taken prisoner by a group of Pagans who force him to fight other men to the death for entertainment. Between battles, he is fed and cared for by a young, orphaned boy. As the film progresses, it becomes clear that One-Eye has been endowed with the gift of divination. Events that are to come appear, blood red, before him in dreams. One of them is his finding of an old arrowhead while bathing in a pond. He ends up using this object to free himself and slay his captors. He spares the life of the Boy who cared for him, and together they set off for an unknown destination.

Eventually, the two of them come across a rag-tag group of Crusaders, Christians fresh from killing male pagans and holding all the women as naked hostages. Recognizing that One-Eye is a man of great strength, the leader of the Christians, a man known only as The General, asks him to join them on their quest to re-conquer the Holy Land. He says that, regardless of whether or not One-Eye survives the endeavor; he will be absolved of all previous sins and allowed to go to heaven. The General then asks the Boy if he knows of One-Eye’s origins. The Boy, who seems to be able to read One-Eye’s thoughts, says that One-Eye was brought up from hell, and that hell is a place somewhere across the sea. He does not, however, specify whether the hell which One-Eye claims to hail from is the Christian hell, or hel, the underworld of Nordic Mythology. One-Eye does eventually agree to join the Crusaders, but only because he had a vision in which he saw himself riding in their boat. Throughout the movie, he follows all his various premonitions without question.

The next segment of the film takes place on the Christians’ ship. It quickly becomes clear that what began as a glorious mission filled with hope and anticipation has since spiraled down into a disaster filled with hunger and despair. The group has been at sea for weeks, and yet they do not appear to have gotten any closer to their desired destination. There is no wind, no current, and, to make matters worse, a dense fog has closed in around them. Water is running short, and many of the men are beginning to starve. Rumors begin to circulate that the voyage is cursed. Some of the crew blames their predicament on The Boy. Mutiny nearly arises when a desperate crewmember attempts to murder The Boy and is killed by One-Eye. Later on, One-Eye senses a change in the motion of the boat, takes a drink from the water, and discovers that they are actually in a fresh water estuary and no longer at sea. With the fog dissipating, the crew catches the first sight of land off in the distance.

 

It quickly becomes clear to them that the place they have arrived at is not the Holy Land. Instead of the large deserts and scorching sun of the Middle East, this new place has vast forests and rolling hills. The crew sets out to explore the area, finding neither animals to hunt nor fruit to eat. Nearly starved, they continue until coming across some indigenous burial sites. One of the crewmembers leaves the group to venture out on his own. The group searches for him for hours and some blame One-Eye for his disappearance. The General argues that there is no proof that One-Eye killed him. Finally accepting that they have not reached Jerusalem and that their whole quest was for nothing, the crew prepares the ship to depart and head home. While on the water, the group is taunted by a single arrow, which flies in from nowhere and kills one of their men. Terrified, they soon come to believe that they are actually in Hell.

 

Upon returning to shore, the men drink a strange brew given to them by The General. This is his dubious method of “…..claiming the land in His Name.” Subsequent events demonstrate that The General has gone insane. One-Eye has a vision of his ultimate fate. He wades to a small island to construct a cairn, a pile of stones used in certain rituals. Meanwhile, the other men split up and experience a variety of perceptions and emotions including apathy, desperation and despair. One prays. One attacks and rapes another. Others wander or wait. One-Eye and the group are then confronted by the lost crewmember, who emerges from the forest bare-chested and covered in orange-brown mud in which runes and hieroglyphs are drawn. This lost Crusader says he can hear One-Eye’s thoughts now and translates that the warrior is saying they are in Hell. Another crewmember then accuses The General of lying to them, and One-Eye of bringing them there. He disavows the existence of God and attacks One-Eye. Three people die in the skirmish that follows.

 

Arrows from the forest continue to harass the remaining Christians after the band breaks up. As the group’s Priest prepares to follow One-Eye, The General stabs him in the side and declares that he himself will stay and create a “New Jerusalem” for the men of faith. Upon his subsequent appointment of The Lost One as his chief spiritual adviser, however, even the orange mud-stained Viking merely laughs at him. The wounded Priest and The General’s Son follow One-Eye up the mountains. Several arrows then hit the General, who slips into the water as he dies. They stop to rest and question their fate, turning to One-Eye. The General’s Son decides that he must go back to his father, knowing full well that the man is probably dead and that he too will die. One-Eye and The Boy continue on, but the Priest does not follow. Mortally wounded, he sits with flies buzzing all about him, staring blankly into the valley below.

One-Eye and The Boy successfully reach the coastline and are soon met by over a dozen Native American warriors. One-Eye regards them knowingly, as he has already foreseen this event in a vision. He puts his hand on The Boy’s arm, and then walks into the middle of the tribesmen. He drops his axe and his knife and closes his eye. One of the warriors fells him with one blow to the back of the head, before the other warriors finish him off.

One-Eye’s spirit walks into the estuary next to his cairn and disappears below the surface. On the beach, the remaining tribe members quietly withdraw back into the forest, leaving the boy looking out at the ocean. The final shot shows a grim face, possibly One-Eye’s, woven into the clouds.

There’s no other way to spin it–Valhalla Rising is a strange story. And as is often the case with strange stories, there are many ways to interpret it. However, for the duration of this article, I shall focus on just one, my own. To me, Valhalla Rising is the director, Nicholas Winding Refn’s, dark satire of religion and traditional perceptions of manhood.  Then again, satire, a harsh term which implies ridicule, doesn’t quite do what the film is justice. Yes, the movie certainly criticizes the above-mentioned topics in much the same manner as   a satire would, but it also pays homage to these concepts as well.

Let me explain. Religion is one of the film’s primary themes and, at first glance, it appears as though it is nothing more than a concept that the director intends to thumb his nose at. All the film’s religious characters are violent, insane, and greedy. On the one hand there are the pagan clansmen who, in addition to worshipping many gods, enslave other men and force them to fight to the death for sport, and then there are the Christians, who burn infidels at the stake, round up naked women to be used as sex slaves, and invade distant lands with the hopes of forcefully converting the local population. All in all, it doesn’t exactly look like Refn is organized religion’s biggest fan. And yet, unlike other cinematic criticisms of faith, Valhalla Rising is able to acknowledge, and even incorporate, some of the most fascinating, positive, and simultaneously important aspects of the religions that it’s focusing on. All you need do is look at the main character, One Eye, and you have your proof.

One Eye serves as a kind of cinematic synthesis of Odin, the king of the Norse Gods, and Jesus Christ. Scholars of Nordic Mythology, or anyone whose ever picked up a Thor comic book, know that Odin, in addition to having only one eye, was able to see the future, and all devout, or at least halfway committed, Christians know that Jesus allowed himself to die on the cross so as to forgive mankind for their sins. One Eye has the ability to see the future and, in the end, sacrifices himself in order to save the boy, who represents the innocent, unblemished side of humanity. The sacrifice is arguably the most important concept in all Christianity. It illustrates the absolute love that God, embodied here in the person of Jesus, has for us. We cannot hope to understand God in all his glory, but we can understand his son, a man of absolute kindness whose suffering we are all of us far too familiar with. The sacrifice is God’s way of offering us a shot at redemption. One-Eye, a man who has known nothing but hate and violence his whole life, is able to find redemption in the act of sacrificing himself because, by giving up his own life, he is able to save the boy.

While the larger meaning, and religious significance of, the sacrifice is not lost on many people, these same qualities of One Eye’s appearance and ability to see the future are. You see, just as love, kindness and charity are three of the most important philosophies in Christianity, courage, self-sacrifice, and endurance in the face of adversity were some of the pillars upon which ancient Nordic religion rested. Anyone who’s been to Scandinavia knows that it is a harsh, unforgiving, incredibly cold environment. If you wanted to survive back in the day, you had to be strong and fearless. Ancient Nords were constantly reminded of, and accepted, there own mortal frailty. Death was everywhere in their lives, and their perseverance in the face of it is everywhere in their stories. How, you might ask? Well, unlike the immortal, all-powerful God of Islamic and Judeo-Christian tradition, the Norse gods could die. Some of them, like Odin, knew exactly how and when they were going to die, and it was their ability to keep moving, to continue to work towards the greater good in the full knowledge of their own frailty, that made them so heroic. It was in this way that they, like the violent and sexually overactive gods of Greek mythology, reflected the mindsets and behaviors of the ancient Nords. Keeping all this in mind, it becomes easy for one to see the protagonist, One-Eye, as the quintessential Nordic hero. He is a mighty warrior who endures pain and death without question or complaint. He, like Odin, knows everything that is going to happen to him, and is completely unbothered by it.

Now I bet some of you are thinking, okay Nathan, you’ve made it pretty damn clear that this film is religious satire, but how, exactly, is it a satire of traditional perceptions of manhood? Simple, the film has the one character who does not behave in a “masculine” manner go to heaven. Let me explain. The last few seconds of the movie show a grim, deeply scarred face woven into the clouds. It’s hard to say for certain, but the face in question appears to be One-Eye’s, and since we, the audience, saw him die literally one minute beforehand, and heaven is generally thought to be located somewhere in the sky, it becomes easy for one to see this last scene as the director’s way of saying, “Hey, just in case you’re wondering, he’s in heaven now.” Some of you might be thinking, okay, so One-Eye made it to heaven, but what does this have to do with him acting in a non-masculine manner? In fact, how and when did he behave in an even remotely non-masculine way? After all, we see him kill more people than anybody else in this picture, and isn’t violence generally seen as something highly masculine? Yes, One-Eye does kill lots of people in this movie, and yes, traditionally; men have sought to prove their manhood by killing one another. In ancient Scandinavia, you couldn’t be considered a true man unless you’d fought many wars during your lifetime, and died in battle. Dying in battle was actually the only way that one might hope to enter Valhalla, the hall of the gods. Personally, I think that’s the reason why Refn chose to name the film Valhalla Rising. See, the time period in which the movie is set, the Viking Era, was n age of constant and increasingly bloody warfare, and Refn wants to show us that it was by having a title that says more people were dying in battle and going to Valhalla. But I’m getting off topic here. One-Eye behaves in a “non-masculine” manner at the end of the movie when he simply allows himself to be killed. To an ancient Nordic warrior, surrender and capitulation to the enemy were two behaviors that simply could not be tolerated. By choosing to not fight back, One-Eye is saying, to the ancient Nords, at least, that he is not a man, and according to them, this means that he wouldn’t be able to go to heaven. And yet the last shot of the movie indicates that he, the supposed non-masculine character, did go to heaven. In fact, he appears to be the only person in this entire movie that made it there. What Refn is trying to say here is that, if you show restraint; if you are willing to accept what comes to you with calm, love and kindness; you will be rewarded. Basically, if you want to be tough, you have to be able to take punches as well as throw them.

So there you have it! My first film analysis. I actually have a lot more thoughts on this picture, but I figured this post was long enough already. Please let me know what you think. Thank you all so much for sticking with me for so long.

Nathan Liu