It is often argued, justifiably so, that many if not all of the European folk and fairy tales that have made it their way across the Atlantic via the entertainment industry have seen their source material considerably neutered. The predominant culprit is Disney, who makes wonderful family entertainment, albeit entertainment that does away with much of the harshness and genuine creepiness of the stories of yesteryear. Writer-director Jonas Matzow Gulbrandson has seen fit to operate a course correction of sorts by sharing an original tale set in his native Norway that hearkens back to many of the familiar ingredients that make up so many classic horror folk misadventures. Enter, Valley of the Shadows.
Set in the remote Norwegian countryside, the Valley relates a harrowing period in young Aslak’s (Adam Ekeli) life. With an absentee father, a mysteriously vanished older brother, his only friend a boy a few years older than him, and a taciturn relationship with his mother (Kathrine Fagerland), Aslak’s only true comfort seems to be his Bernard Collie, Rapp. Things take a gruesome turn for the worse when Aslak and his friend make the discovery of butchered sheep cadavers in the vicinity, their insides turned out, intestines munched to bits. The children think they know better than the adults, believing a werewolf to haunt the land, living in the woods nearby. When Rapp unexpectedly chases after something into the forest, Aslak embarks on a dark, lonesome journey into the belly of the beast.
There are films that exquisitely set tone and mood in order to explore a terrific story with character growth and thematic arcs. There are also films that exquisitely set up tone and mood, and seem steadfast in making the first two ingredients do the heavy lifting as far as storytelling, character growth, and thematic arc is concerned. Valley of Shadows falls firmly into the latter category, basking in the languid pace with which events transpire as Aslak reacts to what occurs around him and to the people he cares about. Not that there is anything wrong with a film taking its time — not every movie needs to click along at the pace of an action-thriller — but perhaps Valley is too content to move along at its deliberate pace. There is also a startling amount of setup to boot, with nearly the entire first half of the film happening before Aslak is forced to look for his canine companion in the mysterious woods. Additionally, given a pseudo-revelation Aslak is privy to whilst stumbling amongst the trees, there is one subplot in particular broached in the earlier goings that suddenly seems superfluous.
A pacing too slow for its own good can kill a film. While it doesn’t do Valley many favours, thankfully it doesn’t ruin the experience entirely either. For one, actor Adam Ekeli is a fascinating young thespian. Although his facial acting remains largely immobile (or experiences very subtle variations at the least), his mere physical presence and the lighting cinematographer (the director’s brother, Marius) awards him are excellent. Aslak isn’t the least bit talkative, but that doesn’t make him uninteresting. There is a sensation of a character that has already lived an emotionally challenging life, a tall order for any child actor, one Ekeli is certainly up to challenge for.
As previously alluded to, if there are a couple of things Valley gets down pat, they are mood and tone. Colour schemes, editing, and camera angles go a long way to help establish these critical facets of storytelling, and each one is impressively manipulated to say the least. The naturally beautiful, haunting look to the region obviously works very much in the filmmakers’ favour — that much goes without saying. Even so, Gulbrandson and company make full use of the extremely evocative surroundings to envelop the audience in a disconcerting feeling that something is indeed amiss, that the land, while characterized by grass, hills, trees, and clouds just like any other, is somehow unnatural, as if stitched together by some unknowable force whose intentions could either be altruistic or malevolent. There are a handful of evening shots as Aslak makes his ways through the forest under the moonlight that instill just as much admiration for their beauty as they do shivers down one’s spine.
As such, Valley of Shadows is by no means a poor film. An apt argument might be that it is too challenging for its own good. Whether by budgetary constraints, design, or both, director Gulbrandson keeps the viewer removed from what might really be going on, in fact relishing the opportunity to prompt audience members to ask themselves if some of what Aslak encounters in the woods are figments of his imagination. Again, not at all a problem generally — even welcomed in some cases — but here the film feels too content to remain at arm’s length, let alone take plenty of time to get anywhere. It’s a beautiful work of art. If only it were more engaging.