A dark silhouette traverses a mountainous landscape. It’s a lone rider of unknown origin, but the upbeat music immediately lets you know that he’s someone important. His face is soon revealed as he approaches a little Austrian town tucked into the valley between these hills, ready to set the plot into motion.
From its opening frames, Andreas Prochaska’s The Dark Valley carries itself with an aura of refined classicism. Replace its snow-covered Alps with the dusty American West, and this Western could easily fit in with the visual style of the genre’s heyday. Sam Riley plays our protagonist (as cool as ice in the role), an elusive man who arises suspicion among the community. He claims to be a photographer but there’s something else that he wants. No one is more aware of this than the Brenner clan, sons of a single tyrant who rules with an iron fist. They strongly resist his presence but their cooperation is nothing that money can’t buy (a key theme in the plot) and so, they reluctantly allow him to stay in exchange for some gold coins. He’s soon placed in the care of a pair of gracious hosts, a widow (Carmen Gratl) and her young daughter Luzi (Paula Beer). As Greider quickly settles in with the family, we learn of Luzi’s upcoming wedding, which unexpectedly comes with a feeling of dread rather than excitement. As the day approaches, the dark history of the village and the purpose of Greider’s arrival are steadily illuminated.
As alluded to earlier, The Dark Valley uses established cinematic tropes to stunning effect. Spearheaded by the brooding intensity of Riley’s performance, its atmosphere is thick with tension. As the screenplay slowly pulls back its layers, a classic confrontation between the forces of good and evil emerges. There’s even a whiff of Shane in the film’s moral conflict, as our tortured hero imposes himself into the town’s corrupt system. Much like that George Stevens gem, there’s also a understated romantic quality to the film that raises the stakes even further.
With this underlying romanticism, Prochaska is able to tap into one of the more compelling aspects of the conventional Western model. At a basic level, these stories are about cold-hearted revenge, but the truly great ones also capture a strong sense of humanity. In this case, Greider’s retribution is not only about his own satisfaction, but also comes from a desire to uphold social justice. Like Gary Cooper in High Noon, it comes from a sense of personal responsibility, even if it means sacrificing your soul and endangering your life. A timeless dilemma.
Conceptually, this may all seem thoroughly old-fashioned (picturesque imagery, moralistic revenge narrative, damsel in distress, a male hero) but in fact, it has a modern edge to it. In particular, the film’s superb score is punctuated by evocative contemporary tracks like Clara Luzia’s “Sinnerman” and “How Dare You” by Streaming Satellites. There’s also a grisly sadism to the violence that would surely attract the Quentin Tarantino fans.
The Dark Valley does eventually sacrifice some of its exquisite sophistication in favor of its action-oriented endgame, but it’s a fair trade-off. When the climactic showdown arrives, it will have you mentally – or literally – fist pumping from the sheer thrill of it. As entertaining as it is artful, this finely crafted Western should appeal to art house and multiplex moviegoers alike.
The Dark Valley is currently available to Film Movement subscribers and will be released to non-members on January 6, 2015.
The Dark Valley is the Austrian submission for the 2014 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Click here for reviews of other official submissions.