This movie, Drive and Only God Forgives could almost make a trilogy, since they are all impressionistic movies that focus on mostly silent men who seem to run on an engine of pure rage. (That’s such a specific series of adjectives it sounds like a Netflix recommendation category.) As I was watching Valhalla Rising I thought: this guy is basically a pink-skinned Incredible Hulk because he’s always one step away from turning into a wrathful beast, and then I remembered hearing Ryan Gosling describe his character the Driver as a werewolf in human form. Nicolas Winding Refn really loves movies about barely contained savages.
Of those three movies I think I prefer this one the most, because it is the most fully realized of the three, committing the most fully to it's existence as a nightmarish art movie. Part of it is that the semi-mythical setting of Valhalla Rising makes the most sense for the fever-dream feeling that these movies often give you; it makes sense to set a movie with a disjointed and mostly symbolic narrative in a place that doesn't seem quite real more than it does to set it in L.A. or Bangkok. It also helps that the time period requires the characters to be dressed up in clothes that seem more like something you’d see in a painting at a museum than on the street, which gives Refn’s well-composed shots another layer of artistry and further distances them from our everyday world.
But I think a large part of it is that the vengeful characters that Refn is interested in seem like they come from a more barbaric time, so there isn’t as much of a tonal disconnect between the warrior spirit of the main character and the rest of their environment in Valhalla Rising as there is in the more contemporary Drive and Only God Forgives. These are men who aren't sure if they are in hell or not, but that makes sense, because they seem like they are somewhere in between being men and being demons.
Valhalla Rising is a perfect name for this movie, because Valhalla is heaven for warriors, but it's hard to imagine how those things fit together. How does a pink skinned Hulk find peace? Does he stop impaling people, or does he continue impaling people, just in the middle of nicer scenery? I'm not sure if Valhalla Rising's answers to these questions are theologically correct, but they are definitely aesthetically awesome.