FlixChatter Review: Das Finstere Tal (The Dark Valley, 2014)

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I have to admit I probably wouldn’t have stumbled upon this Austrian Western if it weren’t for my affinity for English actor Sam Riley. And for that I’m grateful to him, and he’s an unlikely-but-perfect choice in the role of a German-speaking, Texas cowboy protagonist.

It’s always a good sign when a film starts off in a captivating way that made you want to know more. In the opening scene, we see a terrified couple hiding in a basement of a lodge. We don’t know who they are except they’re on the run, but soon they’re captured and the man is severely beaten as the woman is dragged away screaming.

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The film takes place years after that incident in the opening scene. A lone rider on a horse saunters into the secluded town. It’s one of my all time favorite opening credits ever. Exquisitely shot somewhere in Austrian Alps, set to the song Sinnerman by Clara Luzia that complement the setting beautifully. It sets the tone of the film that this is a slow-burn revenge thriller, as the action doesn’t really start until about a half hour into the film. But this is the kind of films that rewards your patience.

The mysterious stranger goes by the name of Greider (Riley). He’s got a cold welcome from the chieftains of the town, that is the six sons of Old Brenner. The Brenner clan has dominated the town for generations and for some reason the townsfolk are compliant to their rule. Despite the rude welcome, the Brenners let Greider stay, and even let him take photos of the family with his daguerreotype camera. Greider is placed in the home of a woman and her daughter Luzi, whom we later learn is the narrator of the story.

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The film takes its time before Greider exact his revenge, but the moment leading up to it in the woods is brimming with suspense. One freak logging accident happens after another, and of course Greider is immediately suspected. One particular accident is quite gruesome for my feeble nerves, but it’s nothing compared to the brutal scene that happens later in flashback. The film’s plot concerns a medieval practice jus primae noctis (the right of the first night) harshly enforced by the Brenner patriarch on the young woman in the town. The third act reveals who and what happens in the opening scene, it should be obvious by then which makes Luzi’s VO explaining it seems overkill.

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The strength of Das Finstere Tal is in its eerie quietness… the seemingly serene vista and the taciturn demeanor of its hero. Greider seems a passive man, not willing to fight back when he was beaten by one of the Brenner brothers during a shopping errand with Luzi. The fact that Riley isn’t who you’d picture as a cowboy actually makes him an effective actor for the role and he more than acquits himself well here. There’s a piercing intensity in Greider’s eyes, and a suppressed restlessness. He made you believe he’s filled with rage and absolute contempt for those who’ve wronged him, but he’s not a monster devoid of humanity. There’s a particularly memorable ‘gold coins’ scene between him and a female innkeeper. He’s so consumed with anger but backs away the instant he realizes he’s stooped to the level of the Brenners. I also love that scene in the end between him and Old Brenner, it’s so emotionally-charged with barely any words spoken.

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Austrian actor Tobias Moretti as the eldest Brenner son Hans and Paula Beer as Luzi are two of the most memorable supporting cast in the film. Hans is just a vile human being, appropriately brutal and cocky in his treatment of the hapless townsfolk. There’s a moment during a wedding where he orders the bride to dance that just makes me shudder with fear and loathing. The final shootout in the woods was perhaps a bit over the top with its use of slow-motion, but it’s still fascinating to watch. Greider’s bad-assery isn’t just that he’s a great shooter, but the fact that he’s planned his revenge meticulously, down to the Winchester rifle he brought just for the occasion.

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It’s a pity this film wasn’t chosen in the Best Foreign Language category in 2015, but it was nominated for nine German Oscars (the Lolas). I also wish Sam Riley had gotten some recognition because he truly displays such masterful acting here. He conveys so much with his eyes, he can be menacing and vulnerable at the same time.

I’m not well-versed in classic westerns, but I read that Austrian filmmaker Andreas Prochaska was largely influenced by Clint Eastwood’s westerns and some even compare it to Eastwood’s Pale Rider as it’s also about a lone hero taking on a village. But the setting and style in which the film is constructed certainly sets this one apart in this genre. The cinematography and music are particularly striking that I’ve made an appreciation post for that.

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The Dark Valley is one of the most beautifully-shot films I’ve ever seen. It made me wish I had seen it on the big screen. Cinematographer Thomas W. Kiennast seems to have that David Lean touch in capturing those amazing wide shots. Filmed in the mountainous region of Trentino-Alto Adige, Italy, every shot is good enough to frame. The use of anachronistic music can be very effective when used well, and I think that’s the case here. German composer Matthias Weber did a fine job in creating an ominous, haunting tone to his score that fits the eerie, atmospheric feel of the film.

I can’t recommend this enough. It might be too slow or bleak for some but it’s certainly worth a look if you’re looking for an off-the-beaten path genre film that’s as exquisite as it is haunting.

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What are your thoughts of ‘The Dark Valley?’

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32 thoughts on “FlixChatter Review: Das Finstere Tal (The Dark Valley, 2014)

    1. Oh I posted it right at 11:11?? Cool! I didn’t even see the time, but man you should check this out Jay! Everyone I’ve recommended this too liked it, so I hope you’ll give it a shot, it’s on Netflix.

  1. I wasn’t in love with it as much as you but I did enjoyed it. Definitely loved the cinematography and it captured the mood of the old western films. You should definitely check out PALE RIDER and HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER, it has very similar story line. Also, you should check out Eastwood’s last western, maybe his masterpiece UNFORGIVEN.

    1. Hi Ted! I gotta admit I probably won’t be as in love w/ it if Sam weren’t the lead. But he’s amazing, the fact that he’s not who you’d picture as a cowboy makes it even more effective. I might check out Pale Rider that seems very similar to this and yes, Unforgiven too, man I’ve been wanting to see it for ages. Do you have the Bluray by any chance?

      1. Oh yeah I have Unforgiven on Bluray, it’s one of the first bluray discs I bought when the format was launched many years ago. I think I have most if not all of Eastwood’s westerns in my BD collections. I like to think both Pale Rider and High Plains Drifter are in the same universe, they’re very similar. And yes Dark Valley burrowed many elements from those two films.

          1. Yeah let’s meet for coffee when you have time, I’m usually not that busy on Saturday or Sunday afternoon. No Unforgiven is not too violent at all, pretty tame for an R-rated film from the 90s. Actually Eastwood made the film to speak against violence in our society, especially at that time; it came out about a year after the LA riot. In fact, Gene Hackman didn’t want to be in the movie because he thought the script was too violent. But Eastwood promised him that the violence will mostly be offscreen. When I first saw the film, I didn’t like it, I was very young at the time and expected to see elaborate shootouts. But Eastwood didn’t glamorize the violence in the film at all.

            1. That’s great to hear! I think the fact that the violence is mostly offscreen can be just as effective (think Road to Perdition). Interesting trivia about Hackman not wanting to do it because of the violence, you’ve just sold me the film even more now Ted!

              P.S. I’ll be posting your review of Don’t Breathe later today.

  2. I liked it very much, Ruth! The enacting of the right of the first night — jus primae noctis — I hadn’t seen a film implementing that old Medieval tradition since Braveheart. In this film, it’s creepiness is palpable. I liked your Sam very much. I thought the music was jarring at the end, that is, the music was fine alone, but it didn’t seem to fit in the composition of the film. I agree the cinematography is a highlight. Nice review, Ruth.

    1. Yaaaayy!! I didn’t even know that you saw this until I saw you mentioned it a couple of weeks ago. So did Jordan tell you about it? I had recommended it to him and was thrilled he loved it.

      Yes, the ‘jus primae noctis’ hasn’t been a popular subject on film, which is surprising. Yeah it’s soooo eerie and ominous, you just know something is VERY wrong w/ this town and the Brenner clan. It seems most of the complaint about the film is the music but upon subsequent rewatches (and I’ve seen this 4 times now), I actually like the anachronism. It’s jarring at first but after a while it’s actually effective. But yeah, can’t argue w/ the cinematography!

    1. Me neither Cindy, but he’s definitely very talented. If you have Netflix, I highly recommend another German film PHOENIX. It’s a WWII mystery drama about a disfigured woman who thinks her lost husband might’ve been the one responsible. Trust me, I think you’ll be riveted!

  3. jackdeth72

    Hi, Ruth:

    Looks very intriguing indeed!

    This film looks Luscious, inviting and just a bit frightening in its very rustic surroundings. Getting a bit of a Warren Beatty, ‘Mc Cabe and Mrs. Miller’ vibe from the heavy coats, snowy forests and cold. Also some Eastwood for its expanse and primal beauty,

    Good choice and dissertation!

    1. Hello Kevin, long time no see my friend!

      The filmmaker and the lead actor clearly admire American classic westerns and it shows! The snowy forest and mountain scenery adds to the ominous suspense. ‘Primal beauty’ – that’s the perfect way to describe the setting, and the primal nature of that horrifying medieval tradition!

  4. I love a solid western so thanks for this suggestion. I honestly feel like they don’t make ’em like they used to anymore. It’s like a dying genre (unfortunately). I’ve also got a love for foreign language film so this’ll be a perfect movie for me. Cheers for the recommendation. Would you be interested in sharing your work on Moviepilot/Creators? Feel free to shoot me an e-mail so I can expand on that. My contact details are on my blog.

    1. Hello hello! Welcome to FC and thanks for your comment. I hope you decide to give this a shot, it’s on Netflix which is great so I can rewatch it over and over, ha!

      I’ll send you an email about Moviepilot. I’d be willing to share my posts there, esp. new release reviews. So thanks for the invite!

    1. I really think you’d like this Michael! So far I haven’t heard from ppl I recommend this to that they didn’t like it, unless they’re too afraid to admit, ahah. But hey Cindy loved it and I know she loves classic Westerns 🙂

  5. rockerdad

    This was a great recommendation Ruth! I very much enjoyed this movie – and we have talked about this haha. I’m a Riley fan and still need to see Pride and Prejudice. Thank you Netflix for having this on streaming.

    1. Hey Vince! I can lend you PPZ Bluray, it’s really a lot of fun, though people who love zombie movies probably wish it were more gory, ahah. Riley is extremely underrated it’s not even funny! You’ve seen On The Road right? That’s on Netflix too, oh and Byzantium! I love that one, it’s an unusual vampire movie about mother/daughter, directed by Neil Jordan. I have a feeling you’d dig that one!

  6. Great post Ruth. We both love this movie I think it is fair to say. I love that image of Riley seen through the cross of the confession door. WOW! The cinematography here is some of the best I have ever seen I agree, Its just eye-popping.

    I also loved the soundtrack (apart from the modern song used near the end) and it makes sense that it was a German composer. It sounded very dark, very ominous, which is what a lot of German classical music sounds like. One guy used double basses so big that two people were needed to use it!! Bit of random trivia for ya 😉

    Tobias Moretti really was great too wasn’t he? Creepy as hell. And the girl playing Luzi (and her boyfriend, Lukas?) were great too. I agree about the narration also, totally unneeded

    1. Hey Jordan! Yes I didn’t expect to love it as much as I did as I’m not into Westerns but man, the setting, direction, and of course Sam’s performance is absolutely excellent. It’s funny that most people didn’t like the modern songs but I actually like ’em more on subsequent rewatches. I think the song choices are great and fits the theme of the film, down to the lyrics: “Oh sinnerman, where you gonna run to?”

      Yes I think the cast and crew are mostly German/Austrians apart from Sam. Matthias Weber is a composer to watch out for. I like Morretti and Paula Bier, those three are basically the main performers. I think the narration is unnecessary but at least Bier’s voice is nice to listen to.

      1. Oh I love the use of the Sinnerman song. That was beautiful and apt considering what the song is about. Such a haunting yet memorable tune… but the song they used during that final shoot-out was really jarring for me each time I watched this. That and the slow-motion, I’ve never liked slo-mo.

        I’ll have to keep an eye out for that composer. This truly was one of the best soundtracks I have heard recently… except for that one song 😛

        1. Oh sorry, you’re referring to ‘How Dare You’ by Streaming Satellites, not ‘Sinnerman’ Yeah I think that music might be too rock-ballad-ish for the scene, and the slo-mo did make me laugh! I think that whole scene was a bit over the top, though I love Sam looking like a bad ass mo-fo, ahah.

          Yes, he’s a talented composer, but so is Rob Simonsen, so stop by again tomorrow for my interview!

                1. Thanks to Twitter! I complimented the composer and he thanked me, so I thought I took a chance and asked if he’s willing to be interviewed. He’s not a big name yet but still thrilled he said yes as he’s very talented! Maybe one day I get to interview Sam too 🙂

  7. When I first read your review, I immediately thought of High Plains Drifter and Pale Rider, and then I added Corbucci’s Great Silence as well. Throw in Sam Riley and the Austrian Alps and Das Finstere Tal ticks a lot of boxes for me!

    1. Hey there Paul! Yes I think there are inevitable comparisons to those two classic films. You like Sam Riley too? Well he’s not who I’d expect as a German-speaking American cowboy but he was excellent! Let me know what you think after you’ve seen this.

  8. Pingback: Belated Birthday Tribute to Sam Riley

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