Aside from the title, the majority of Andreas Prochaska’s The Dark Valley is refreshingly original in the way it tackles a familiar story. Perhaps Das finstere Tal, the Austrian title, makes more sense in native tongue and context – but if you don’t care to brush up on your Austrian beforehand The Dark Valley is still to be enjoyed. Prochaska’s resume shows he’s been fairly prolific over the past few years, but most of his projects are horror flicks or TV shows. The Dark Valley looks to be his most mature feature effort thus far.
Sam Riley stars as the lone drifter Greider, largely the strong and silent type, recently arrived at a remote snowbound village high in the Alps. The aforementioned “familiar story” is really just that: mysterious stranger arrives in otherwise comfortable close-knit town, people become uncomfortable; secrets exist for the townsfolk and for the drifter, said secrets are exposed; drifter and young woman flirt with obligatory fling; things seem okay for a while until suddenly, one day, shit hits the fan. These by-the-numbers plot points are most at home in a Western, which is a genre that The Dark Valley is now a part of in spite of the snowy mountain setting (though, agreed, not technically a Western in the American sense – so, an Eastern?), but that familiarity is never crippling. As much as The Dark Valley resembles Once Upon a Time in the West on paper, it’s a starkly different kind of movie.
That’s mainly because Prochaska isn’t trying to be Sergio Leone (nor should he [nor should anyone]) and because The Dark Valley realizes its weaknesses and favors the strong foot. The mountain setting is absolutely fantastic, so much so that the importance of everything else kind of falls away. The set-up’s a bit overdone and the characters are a bit underdone, but when Greider’s stranger alights on a low ledge overlooking an expansive valley streaked by tresses of blue snow, the dim village rosy like alpenglow in the thick forest below, when he descends from the peak to cross the path of two men on horseback who watch him as if tasked with the eternal guard of their halcyon refuge, when the trek leads at last to the Deadwood-esque one-road town built on stone and cold timber and on the people who’ve lived there for generations – with imagery like that, we can forgive a slightly tired diegesis.
Which isn’t to say that the plot is all bad. Past the set-up, things actually begin to get really interesting for the middle act of the film. A treecutting sequence leads to a man being killed in a horrific fashion, bringing out the townsfolk to mourn for the loss in the terrible accident. But then another man is killed while out hunting, and it becomes clear that the death of the first man was no accident. The Dark Valley approaches a bleak rhythm in this middle act, one of violent thunderous death followed by quiet mourning, over and over. The mood of dread grows exponentially. Again, the setting still has a lot to do with this; Prochaska’s experience with horror film may have taught him the importance setting can have on the mood, as he uses every swath of mud and slice of gray sky to his advantage.
One qualm besides the plot is the inclusion of Sam Riley in the central role of Greider. Riley is an actor that I like quite a bit, and he was practically perfect as Ian Curtis in Control – here, though, the boots just won’t seem to fit. His drifter is meant to be a possible menace to the well-meaning townsfolk, to such a degree that they emerge from their houses with loaded arms in order to command he leave at once. Riley isn’t all that menacing, though, and he isn’t childlike enough to flip the tough-stranger thing upside down, either. He seems stuck in the middle, seems like he’s trying to exude such an attitude that he might slide up into the “menacing” category. It’s not too distracting in the context of it all, but a more effective casting might have made the film more convincing.
The Dark Valley was recently announced as Austria’s contender for a nomination for Best Foreign Film at the upcoming 87th Academy Awards. There are a lot of contenders, and the rehashed plot and admittedly predictable conclusion will likely mean the shortlist won’t include The Dark Valley. Still, it’s worth a watch for the stunning visual staging alone, if not for the plot or the acting. The Dark Valley, then, is best summed up simply as an atmospheric and grim trip to the Alps. They’re beautiful this time of year.