Review: THE DARK VALLEY Is As American As Austria Can Get

In Andreas Prochaska's Austrian Neo-Western about an enigmatic horseman who comes to a remote Austrian village in a deserted valley everything looks like a big Hollywood production with stunning production design, costumes and make-up. The Dark Valley is then an ambitious attempt to create a moody genre piece, which lacks more in terms of mood than in terms of genre.

We slowly get to know the taciturn American who is somehow able to understand the German language. Why that is the case and why he arrives at the menacing place that is controlled by an incestuous family will be resolved in a twist-heavy but still slow-burning Austrian interpretation of an American genre. Like in your usual Western, our lone hero is opposed to the long shadow of social injustice represented here by one or many bad-looking villains.

Prochaska has made a name for himself as one of Austria's first explorers of American genres in an Austrian setting. With his horror movie Dead In 3 Days he was able to delight many viewers.

In The Dark Valley he does everything the Western genre demands, but never really finds anything new or exceptional in the Austrian setting. The rest just looks as if it was straight out of an American movie. One may argue that this is the way those places looked at the time but adding some cultural hints and background, like for example how Tim Fehlbaum managed to in his German Apocalypse-thriller Hell, would have given the film a new dimension beyond following exemplary genre rules.

The ideological provocation concerning an American who has to come and save all the dumb Austrians did not even occur to me while viewing the film as all those Austrians have not much to do with Austria. They could be from anywhere.

Even worse is how hard the film tries to establish a dark atmosphere. From threatening camera angles to a bombastic Hans Zimmer-esqu score, Prochaska is not shy in his use of any techniques the American blockbuster industry has produced during the last two decades. There is an American way of storytelling that has given birth to many of the most thrilling genre films in the history of film but just adapting it into an European setting makes it feel like an out-dated American film.

The major problem here is that mood and atmosphere feel constructed. The menace only derives through stylistic devices but never through situations and characters. One does not even care about the protagonists, they are just instruments to have an Austrian Western in the end. Yet in terms of violence Prochaska remains very much the Austrian Sam Peckinpah. With slow-motion effects, much blood and strange musical cues the film is somehow able to find a tone, no matter how appropriate or unappropriate it is.

The unknown American is played by Sam Riley, a surprising and unique appearance in an Austrian film. The British actor gives a solid performance especially when the movie starts to challenge him physically and emotionally, but never quite reaches to the levels of performance like his interpretation of Ian Curtis in Control by Anton Corbijn. The emotional heart of the film beats with a promising performance by young German actress Paula Beer, who plays Luzi, a local woman that is about to get married and therefore has to spend the night with the bad guys (just like in the middle-ages).

As the rules demand in the end there is a shootout where love and violence collide. It looks great like many scenes in the film unquestionably do. But despite the solid work in all departments The Dark Valley does not live up to its expectations. Instead of a moody Austrian genre piece one ends up watching a professional no-brainer brouhaha without soul that only lives from being Austrian. But maybe, considering the abysmally dry valley of Austrian genre cinema, that is enough.

The film is currently showing in Austrian and German theatres.
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