'Valley of Shadows' ('Skyggenes dal'): Film Review | TIFF 2017

Courtesy of TIFF
A dark woodland symphony.

Norwegian newcomer Jonas Matzow Gulbrandsen penetrates the depths of a child's imagination, plagued by fear, confusion and loss, in his dreamy mood piece.

An angelic-looking 6-year-old boy is woken from sleep by a friend at the window who says, simply, "Come, I have something to show you." That invitation portends a troubling discovery: A number of sheep have been mysteriously slaughtered in the rural village where Valley of Shadows is set. The grim sight of the animals' bloody carcasses feeds the vivid imagination of the young protagonist — played with innocence, preternatural grace and haunting vulnerability by Adam Ekeli — in debuting Norwegian director Jonas Matzow Gulbrandsen's brooding Scandinavian Gothic fairy tale.

More of a dark mood piece than a conventional horror film, this atmospheric Nordic fable tips its hat to Peter and the Wolf in a dense woodland setting seemingly suspended between dreamscape and unnerving reality.

Working as a seamless unit with his cinematographer brother Marius Matzow Gulbrandsen, and making majestic use of a melancholy, trance-like score by the great Kieslowski collaborator Zbigniew Preisner, the director shows bold assurance that helps paper over thin stretches in the narrative. He crafts a powerful sense of foreboding that should play well at the arty end of the genre spectrum, making him a name to watch.

Aslak (Ekeli) lives with his single mother Astrid (Katherine Fagerland) and with the deeply felt absence of his drug-addicted older brother, whose empty bedroom provides an echo chamber for Astrid's sadness and Aslak's incomprehension. When the impressionable boy's friend Lasse (Lennard Salamon) shows him the butchered sheep, he fills his head with stories of full moons and werewolves that are rendered more frightening by the graphic illustrations in an old-fashioned picture book, images that foreshadow the protagonist's physical journey into a forbidden, perhaps mythical world. Local farmers, however, attribute the sheep killings to the more common wolf, and begin putting out poisoned baits.

Bad news from cops concerning his missing brother only increases the turmoil in Aslak's head. Despite being convinced that a werewolf lies in the menacing woods on the mountaintop, he ventures in alone on a dangerous odyssey in search of answers — and of his runaway dog.

Location is fundamental to a tale like this, and the filmmakers chose wisely with a mountainous area on the Southwest coast of Norway. The gloomy forest full of ancient trees, with mist rolling through like waves, suggests a place shrouded in the unknown, in surreal suggestions of a primordial, hidden world. The movie is beautifully shot on 35mm, often with sepulchral natural light, and there's both simplicity and eloquence in compositions that place diminutive Aslak against a towering sea of trees. The vastness of nature is overwhelming.

In addition to Preisner's enveloping score, with its ravishing blend of orchestral and electronic components, and chorale passages that lend a religious solemnity, the director harnesses the evocative power of sound — chilling bird and animal calls, creaking branches, the elemental noise of wind and rain lashing the trees.

It's kept intentionally unclear how much time Aslak has been wandering deeper and deeper into the forest. Gulbrandsen also plays with our perceptions as to what the boy is really experiencing — he comes face to face with a magnificent moose; falls asleep on a boat that takes him down a mountain stream; has a strange encounter with a hermit living in an isolated cabin (Norwegian rock star John Olav Nilsen) — and what is happening in his mind. Is the enigmatic stranger a manifestation of his brother? Are the woods in fact malevolent or is he being kept safe?

The film's Freudian subtext is hinted at in the many shots of Aslak sleeping or stumbling out of bed, half-naked and defenseless, his head still thick with the fog of slumber. And he's often seen watching from a wary distance, behind doors, windows or stair banisters, as he struggles to fathom the adult world.

There are no cheap jump scares here, no jittery editing or sudden shocks. Gulbrandsen is more interested in layering ambiguities than in solving mysteries, and his script (co-written with Clement Tuffreau) keeps dialogue to a minimum. But there's real confidence in the filmmaking, creating a shadowy world that washes over you, in which a boy gets lost in his nightmares, perhaps learning that the monster all children fear is a force to be protected.

Production companies: Film Farm, Them Girls Film, Anna Kron Film
Cast: Adam Ekeli, Katherine Fagerland, John Olav Nilsen, Lennard Salamon
Director: Jonas Matzow Gulbrandsen
Screenwriters: Jonas Matzow Gulbrandsen, Clement Tuffreau
Producer: Alan R. Milligan
Executive producers: Tom Kjeseth, Alexander Hagerup
Director of photography: Marius Matzow Gulbrandsen
Production designer: Maria Haard
Music: Zbigniew Preisner
Editor: Mariusz Kus
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Discovery)
Sales: Celluloid Dreams

91 minutes

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