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Before Drive, Nicolas Winding Refn made the bloody good Viking movie Valhalla Rising

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey has us thinking of movies featuring swordplay.

Valhalla Rising (2009)
Before his recent U.S. breakthrough with Drive, Danish genre specialist Nicolas Winding Refn tuned up with a pair of violent thrillers that edged into bloody abstraction: 2008’s Bronson, a Clockwork Orange-indebted biopic about Britain’s most notorious prisoner, and Valhalla Rising, an at-times quasi-experimental take on both the Man With No Name Western and the sword-and-sandals epic. Watching Valhalla Rising is like watching John Milius’ Conan The Barbarian with all the dialogue and other extraneous elements stripped away—what remains is brutality, struggle, and a raw expression of masculinity, shot through by an increasingly aggressive and trippy visual palette. It’s a Viking film that doubles as a journey through hell on Earth. 

Reteaming with Mads Mikkelsen, an actor he employed to devastating effect in the Pusher movies, particularly Pusher II: With Blood On My Hands, Refn uses Mikkelsen’s imposing physicality and stoicism as the most devastating weapon in his arsenal. Hardly 10 minutes pass before Mikkelsen is shown crushing one man’s skull, slashing another’s throat with an arrowhead, and making a third bear witness to his own disembowelment. But he’s actually the hero of the film, a one-eyed mute who escapes from captivity and joins up with a band of Christian Vikings on a journey to fight in the Crusades. They don’t get far: Shot mostly in the gorgeous landscapes and waterways of fog-swamped Scotland, the film unfolds in six chapters with titles like “Wrath,” “The Holy Land,” and “Hell,” and gets more experimental as it goes along. It delivers on the head-splitting swordplay, but it also features sequences like a haunting trip across the water where the Vikings are so engulfed in fog that they’re completely directionless, locked in some existential holding pattern as death looms. Refn makes the terror of it as vivid as the ultra-violence.

Availability: It’s on DVD, but not on Blu-ray in the States. However, the film is also streaming on Netflix and available for digital rental or purchase on the usual sites.