[What The Fest?! 2018] Review: Valley of Shadows

VALLEY OF SHADOWS is an official selection of the inaugural What The Fest?! Genre Film Festival at the IFC Center in New York City.

All actors have that one role that defines them as performers, a synthesis of training, experience, and innate talent that shine perfectly through this representation of character. Some people have Hamlet, others Macbeth or Prince Hal in Henry IV but for me...I had Peer Gynt. Written by Henrik Ibsen it would mark his last major dramatic poem that he would write before shifting to the more contemporary dramatic realism that he would help popularize with arguably his most famous play A Dolls House. Gynt is based upon a Norwegian fairy tale of an adventurous young hunter named Peer who fights trolls and charms milkmaids, Ibsen’s play pushes the character further by chronicling his entire life from brash youth to questioning morality and legacy in literal face of death itself. Tucked in to these headier surrealistic questions are references and lengthy descriptions of the landscapes of Peer’s Norway. “Snowy peaks, palace on palace, peaks...shining peaks with openings of light, don’t fade away now”, he says staring off a cliff onto the Fjords in front of him, nursing a heavy night of booze and broads. In preparation for the role, I attempted to ingratiate myself as much as I could with these landscapes bar visiting Norway and with that spawned a healthy appreciation of the fairy tale beauty of Norway. Which is why it should come as a surprise that we have yet to see much in terms of genre, or dark fantasy, cinema come out of this steeped in mythic history region. And while it may not scratch the itch of every fan of genre cinema, Jonas Matzow Gulbrandsen powerful debut Valley of Shadows is a start.

There’s something tearing apart sheep in the small farming community where six year old Aslak lives with his mother and their Border Collie, Rapp. Aslak’s older friend, Lasse, beckons him outside to see the fresh slaughter. Lasse suggests that it is probably a werewolf, who lives beyond the fence in a forest at the top of a nearby hill, and by the shape that these sheep are left in, it’s not surprising. But one day after having the foundations in his life shaken, he goes in pursuit of the only truth he knows: that something lies in that forest.

The contrast between the twisted carnage of the sheeps bodies on the beautiful backdrop of rural Norway instantly brought to mind Christophe Gans Brotherhood of the Wolf, but where that film relied heavily on action and large set pieces, Valley of Shadows depends on a quiet slow narrative that rests on the crutch of the unknown, for better and for worse. Aslak’s father is absent from his and his mother's life. His brother too is gone, though there are hints of drug addiction and potential history of violence but it’s never fully explained. The forest beyond the fence, a looming black void of uncertainty. Not much is fully explained in this film. Which isn’t necessarily a detraction, but it is something I had wished to know going in. I’ll be frank, because ultimately I think it will help you appreciate this film: it isn’t a horror film. It’s tangentially horror adjacent. This is a creature feature because, in a six-year old chids life: monsters are still real. They are lurking just inside your closet, under the bed, or beyond the treeline. I can’t believe I’m quoting it, but, the night is dark and full of terrors expertly sums up this film. But temper the expectations of what you find to be terror, for as a character mentions later in the film: “We invent monsters to explain things we don’t understand.”

I don’t want to spoil this film for you, but I also think to fully experience this film in the best way you should know what to expect from the get go, so while I believe the problems it does and could face are strikingly similar to another recent quiet quasi-genre film, It Comes At Night, in both the good and the bad. Valley of Shadows is a quiet meditation of grief and loneliness, grounded by a remarkable performance by newcomer Adam Ekeli who is a perfect example of the adage “acting is reacting”. While there may be no stereotypical scares, or buckets of blood, what it does offer is a wholly other experience that genre fans should be prepared for. As Maria Reinup, director of What The Fest?! in New York City put it, this is a painting of a film. And it should be viewed as such.

ReviewJacob Trussell