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BERLIN — The hills are alive with the sound of gunfire in this alpine revenge drama, a superior genre piece which applies classic western tropes to a remote Austrian mountain village in the late 19th century. Based on a 2010 best-seller by Thomas Willmann, The Dark Valley is a visually sumptuous spectacle with solid action and horror elements. But at almost two hours, the plot plods and creaks, sticking too safely within genre conventions.
Reportedly made for around $9 million, but looking more expensive, this German-Austrian co-production comes with strong European pedigree. The Viennese director Andreas Prochaska is a former editor for Michael Haneke who has several domestic hits to his name. The German production partner is X Filme, the Berlin-based talent pool whose credits include Cloud Atlas and The White Ribbon. And while the broodingly handsome British star Sam Riley is not quite a household name, his international profile may help sell the film in overseas markets normally averse to German-language exports.
Riley plays a Clint-style role as Greider, a lone horseman who rides into the village just as winter is approaching. Undeterred by his extremely frosty welcome, the tight-lipped stranger finds long-term lodging with narrator Luzi (Paula Beer) and her widowed mother (Carmen Gratl). Raised in America but fluent in German, Greider is returning to his maternal homeland, apparently with plans to photograph the locals and landscape with his flashy new daguerreotype camera.
In reality, the American interloper has vengeance in mind against old man Brenner (Hans-Michael Rehberg), the godfather of a sadistic clan that has imposed a brutal feudal rule over the village for decades, routinely claiming droit du seigneur over newlywed brides. When the deep snows of winter blow in, the Brenners start dying in increasingly grisly ways as Greider declares a one-man guerrilla war against them.
The Hollywood western ancestry of The Dark Valley is nakedly evident, borrowing across the spectrum from High Noon to Unforgiven, not to mention strong overtones of High Plains Drifter, that cultish early entry in Clint Eastwood’s directing canon. Prochaska and his cinematographer Thomas Kiennast deploy a starkly beautiful palette worthy of a Dutch Master, framing these snowy mountain vistas in dark wood and earth tones that almost appear monochrome at times. Matthias Weber‘s doomy orchestral score helps sustain the mood of creeping dread and gothic melodrama.
The Dark Valley unapologetically deals in familiar archetypes and comic-book cliches, recycling rather than reinventing the western rulebook. Heroes are taciturn and impeccably groomed, villains are cackling sadists with unsightly facial hair, and womenfolk are mostly mute victims. Strangely, it is never made clear why the villagers choose to remain in their grotesque alpine purgatory rather than seek a less punishing life in the next valley.
Ultimately too conservative for its own good, The Dark Valley has scant psychological depth, no shock twists that can not be seen approaching from miles away, and little fresh to add to the most elemental of movie genres besides its Middle European mountain setting. But boy does it look terrific. Production companies: Allegro Films, X Filme Creative Pool
Cast: Sam Riley, Paula Beer, Tobias Moretti, Carmen Gratl, Hans-Michael Rehberg, Thomas Schubert
Director: Andreas Prochaska
Screenwriters: Martin Ambrosch, Andreas Prochaska, based on the novel by Thomas Willmann
Cinematographer: Thomas W. Kiennast
Editor: Daniel Prochaska
Music: Matthias Weber
Production designer: Claus Rudolf Amler
Costume designer: Natascha Curtius-Noss
Sales company: Films Distribution, Paris
Unrated, 115 minutes
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