Sombre and Cold: Das Finstere Tal

Das Finstere Tal“Shhwwoooooow” I exhale a breath. I’ve been holding it for two hours now. Make that 1 hour 54 minutes – the approximate duration of Das Finstere Tal (The Dark Valley) (2014). Gee….I’m going to need some time to process this one.

I wasn’t sure what to expect. Other than an Alpine Western which I don’t know what it is anyway. All I know is that I have a weakness for Westerns and another for those set in small European towns, where the sets and dialects are authentic, making these movies so special. Something set far away from the mainstream big city lights is so refreshing.

The story, without me spoiling it, is about a stranger finding his way to a small alpine village tucked away in a valley. Predictably, his appearance has something to do with the happenings in the town. You’re in the dark, literally and figuratively, as to the disturbing secret that drives the story. It is very clear though, that something is about to give. I must admit I did have a suspicion as to the reasons for his appearance but on the other hand some scenes caught me by surprise. I also found myself questioning his motives and morals, especially in the last 15 minutes or so. That’s what’s important though – to make me think. To make me question.

From the very first frame (or lack of) it is dark and dreary and you just know it’s going to be heavy. Suspenseful music is heard before you see anything on the screen thus setting the tone for what is to come. Beginning to end. And perfectly enhances just the right scenes throughout.Das Finstere Tal 2

The arrival of the stranger Greider (Sam Riley) is interesting. You first get this Western feeling but with snow-capped mountains which doesn’t seem quite right but you’re still thinking that it may well be somewhere in America or Canada. And then…a typical Austrian alpine village? What? (Ok, fine, I knew it was set in Austria but for a moment I forgot about that) It all makes for a very unusual feel. Add the dialect without which it would have fallen flat (just give yourself time to tune into it). German or even English just wouldn’t have worked. Before seeing the movie I kept wondering what role Sam Riley would have in such a movie*. But that’s the whole point! That’s his role. The American stranger speaking German. It all adds to the mystery.

But oh, the cinematography. It is a work of art. There are amazing shots throughout. From snow-covered mountains, thick fog, fires, white wedding dresses juxtaposed with lots of shadows to generally brilliant capturing of the sombre, cold environment (although, the fact that I was freezing on my couch watching this probably added to the whole feel). Two images, however, are still crisp and clear in my mind: a wonderful close-up of spurs…yes, spurs! and another of smoke “whisping” up from the rifle that Greider has just fired. Despite the horrid theme, it is so beautifully shot.

The acting is something else. Sam Riley is perfectly cast as the mysterious stranger. I’ve seen him in quite a few roles and he never disappoints. I’m not familiar with any of the other cast members but they all came across like they belonged in the village and the acting never felt forced. Some of the leads are Tobias Moretti, Paula Beer (she’s wonderful) and Thomas Schubert. Andreas Prochaska directs.

In closing, this official foreign language film entry by Austria into the Academy Awards is well worth a watch but not if you’re looking for something light and happy.

*Sam Riley is actually an English actor living in Berlin.

Das Finstere Tal is based on the book of the same name by Thomas Willmann.


Jane Got a Gun, Slow West, The Salvation and more Westerns

With so few good Westerns coming our way these days, I make a point of watching those that do. And, in the last few months I’ve had quite a choice. In fact, I’m in Western heaven right now…to a degree. In a nutshell, here’s what’s come my way recently: Diablo, Forsaken, Slow West, Jane Got a Gun, The Salvation, The Keeping Room, The Homesman (to watch) and Das finstere Tal (also to watch).

I’ll start with the worst of the lot first so we can move along. In fact, it is barely worth mentioning. It was that bad. I’m talking about Diablo (2015). I had really hoped that Scott Eastwood would bring across some of his father’s magic but…sigh. There is just a certain oomph missing – in fact, from all the actors (Granted, the story itself was poor so I can’t really put all the blame on them). Diablo has Jackson (Eastwood) tracking down his kidnapped wife (Camilla Belle) while the viewer discovers who he really is. The potential for a gripping film was there but alas, it was totally wasted and quickly ran out of direction and depth. Quite frankly, I was close on abandoning the whole shebang especially once Walton Goggins‘ character became clearer….the hope that maybe things would turn out better kept me going…only to see it get worse.

Having got that out the way, I can move on…

Forsaken (2015), starring Donald and Kiefer Sutherland as father and son wasn’t too bad. Kiefer plays former gunslinger John Henry Clayton, who, after many years of absence returns home to make amends with his father Reverend William Clayton (Donald). All this while the town is being tormented by railroad land grabbers. This isn’t an action-filled western but rather a broody/sombre one yet still moving along at a reasonable pace and doing a good job of leaving me wondering when enough was finally enough for John Henry. I always enjoy watching Michael Wincott and was surprised by his character’s actions. Demi Moore and Brian Cox also star. So, altogether, not a bad one but I must admit,¬† I watched roughly ten minutes, abandoned it and only continued to the end a few days later.

The Salvation (2014) starring ever brilliant Mads Mikkelsen was brutal and heavy. Enjoyable? Not sure. Don’ think¬† so as ‘enjoy’ is something that makes you feel better. But good it was. I was definitely holding my breath while Jon Jensen (Mikkelsen) sought personal revenge for the murder of his family. The attention to detail, perfectly cast characters and great sets make for superb viewing. The beautiful (South African) scenery, albeit with a few superimposed bits, is the only light relief you’ll get from this one. Well worth the watch.

Now for my favourites. They are the ones that I can’t get out of my mind after watching. The ones I absolutely need in my collection:

Jane Got a Gun (2015) was great despite the poor ratings it has received (personally, I never go by these, I make up my own mind). Jane Hammond (Natalie Portman) and Dan Frost (Joel Edgerton) made for great partners against Ewan McGregor‘s villain Colin McCann. Jane, married to outlaw Bill, approaches Dan for help in saving her and her family from McCann. But, it isn’t a straightforward case of Jane-asks-Dan-for-help-they-win-everyone-happy. There is more to the story than meets the eye and it unfurls itself at just the right pace, not giving it all away, letting you wait, letting you process, letting you think. At the beginning I was wondering why Jane had done the things she did but by the end, I understood, with the film hitting home. While we often expect the villain to be loud and boisterous, those like McCann who appear calm and collected can be just as bad. He was spot-on and for a moment even showed he had a heart. (Keep a look-out for Rodrigo Santoro – you’ll never recognise him)

And finally….Slow West (2015). Ahhh, what a movie. Refreshing. Brilliant. I was glued from beginning to end. Acting, cinematography, music…everything just right. Once again, a moderate-paced western (seems to be the current trend) but not for a moment did Slow West ever feel slow. Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) comes to America from Scotland to find his true love. Having managed on his own so far yet still “wet behind the ears” he comes across Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender) (or, maybe it is Silas who comes across Jay), an outlaw, who so kindly offers to guide him across the dangerous country (naturally there are ulterior motives). Well, they encounter some interesting characters and things are, obviously, not what the seem. I did not see the ending of this one coming. Definitely one for the collection.

Oh, just quickly…The Keeping Room (2014), technically not a Western, was not at all what I expected. Despite the grim topic of three women (Brit Marling, Hailee Steinfeld and Muna Otaru) left to defend their home during the American Civil war, it was really, really good. If like me, you’ve never seen Sam Worthington in an antagonist role, watch it. He’s uncomfortably convincing as the “bad guy”.

The Homesman (2014) starring Tommy Lee Jones and Hilary Swank is on my list to watch soon. Hope it is a good one. Das Finstere Tal (The Dark Valley) (2014) starring Sam Riley is also patiently gathering dust until I get to it – I’m intrigued as to what this Alpine Western will bring. I’ll keep you posted. (Update: Sombre and Cold: Das Finstere Tal )