This is a brutal, mesmerising film from Dane Nicolas Winding Refn (‘Pusher’, ‘Bronson’), dominated by Mads Mikkelsen as a mute fighter, whose journey from twelfth-century Scotland to a strange New World is an odyssey of self-realisation. Enslaved by a pagan Scottish clan chieftain, the nameless warrior is chained and forced to fight to the death in hand-to-hand bouts staged for amusement and betting. Escaping with the help of a young boy, who names him One-Eye, the warrior learns to use weapons and joins a band of Vikings, but these are Christian converts bound for Jerusalem to reclaim the city for their faith. Their ship, however, is enveloped by a mysterious mist, which finally lifts to reveal an unknown land. Lost, hungry and under attack from the natives, the Viking converts lose their faith and lose their minds, turning on one another – but the enigmatic One-Eye discovers his destiny and embraces his essential self.
There are shades here of Terrence Malick’s elemental feel for landscape, the doomed colonial enterprise of Werner Herzog’s ‘Aguirre, Wrath of God’ and Vincent Ward’s visionary ‘The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey’, yet Refn makes this hypnotic, dreamlike film entirely his own. The pace slows like a fighter’s heart in the second half, demanding an act of faith that some may find hard after the early intensity. But the breathtaking digital photography and an atmospheric electronic score sustain the mood, and for those who see this savage journey through to the end, there are riches aplenty.