The Dark Valley (Das finistere tal, 2013)
Dir: Andreas Prochaska
Starring: Sam Riley
If you consider the parts played by Sam Riley to date as a string of Byronic outsiders, then surely it was only a matter of time until the actor followed his turns as moody rocker (Control), moody beatnik (On The Road), moody mobster (Brighton Rock) and moody vampire (Byzantium) with a spur-heeled saunter into the (moody) Wild West. But who would have guessed that the opportunity would come in a German-language film set among the chilly climes of the remote Alps?
The Dark Valley, directed by Austrian filmmaker Andreas Prochaska (who, in a previous life, edited Michael Haneke’s Funny Games) and adapted from Thomas Willmann’s period page-turner, enters that small canon of films (which also includes John Hillcoat’s Aussie scorcher The Proposition) that relocate the tropes and texture of the Western genre to a new culture.
The familiar touchstones are all here: honest, hard-working folks straining under the yolk of both the elements and the local thugs; shady goons causing trouble in the saloon (or, in this case, a schnapps den); a mysterious stranger rocking up with an occluded past. This interloper is Greider (Riley), an American who is reportedly visiting the valley to photograph its landscape and its residents – but his arrival spells certain doom for the town’s de facto dictator Brenner and his six sons, who not only exploit their neighbours but periodically rape the community’s women, too.
The original novel’s dedications to spaghetti western supremo Sergio Leone and German ‘homeland’ novelist Lugwig Ganghofer serve as an effective blueprint for Prochaska’s gritty, stylised adaptation, which fetishises the mountain landscape and gory violence in equal measure. Sam Riley may not quite capture Clint Eastwood or Charles Bronson’s grim stoicism, but he handles the moody man-in-black job well, although while donning his fur-lined duster and thick winter scarf he does look remarkably like he’s just walked in from a photo-shoot for Burberry’s frontier retro-chic collection.
Stylistically, though, the film is a bit of a botch job. Prochaska shoots for the mythical, terminal inevitability of revisionist bloodbaths, but while he has Peckinpah-style gunfights down pat (complete with effectively squelchy gore and splintering sound design), the story itself is a dreary drudge through angel-of-death revenge flick cliches, with nary a character to be seen among the archetypes and stock players.
For every nice detail – the breaking of ice on the surface of a shaving bowl, the creak and rustle of snow-leaden pines – there are baffling nosedives into unintentionally humorous gothic melodrama, from a fire-and-brimstone sermon from a grizzled priest to a grotesque scene in which Greider forcibly feeds an innkeeper’s wife coins as punishment for corruption.
True, Prochaska’s approach is as subtle as buckshot – but when your themes are as broad as a barn door, it’s pretty hard to miss the mark completely. Ultimately, though, The Dark Valley comes off more like cartoonish pastiche than revival; it’s unsurprising that this well-mounted rehash has already been called ‘the Alpine Django’ in the German press.