Genre helmer Andreas Prochaska (“Dead in 3 Days”) set out to make a hybrid oater-Heimat film, which is exactly what he delivers with “The Dark Valley.” But did he mean for it to be so unspeakably leaden and humorless? This tale of a taciturn stranger stopping in an isolated village full of malevolent residents is designed to contain multiple secrets, yet it’s all just a rehash of familiar revenge tropes wedded to an earnestness that makes Teutonic severity seem almost cuddly. Sam Riley’s presence may generate some international press, though it’s doubtful “Dark” will see light outside German-speaking territories.
“Some things may not be spoken of,” intones narrator Luzi (Paula Beer) in a maddeningly unnecessary voiceover that outlines everything that’s about to happen, even though the narrative couldn’t be any clearer (if only she practiced what she preached). One gray day a lone man with two horses rides into the valley; he’s Greider (Riley), a German-speaking American with a daguerreotype camera. Despite the staggeringly unfriendly welcome he receives, especially from the six Brenner brothers, he’s determined to stay for the winter.
Lodged with stern Luzi and her widowed mother (Carmen Gratl), Greider remains an object of mistrust among the hatchet-faced villagers. Luzi is engaged to Lukas (Thomas Schubert), but despite their love for one another, something’s not right. Must be because old man Brenner (Hans-Michael Rehberg, styled like an elderly Merlin) insists on deflowering every bride before the wedding night. Could that have something to do with the orphaned Greider’s real purpose in town? By the time the second Brenner boy gets violently murdered, the stranger openly confesses his responsibility and declares war on the clan.
There’s something about a vengeance Western that generally never fails to grip the emotions. In the right hands, the genre toys with notions of ethics in an amoral world, questioning the very existence of redemption and showing the guy on the white horse as a reluctant, mournful participant in the cycle of violence. Prochaska aims for all this, yet as with Greider’s metronome, used to count the time needed for his camera’s exposure, the entire pic’s pace is slow, unchanging and distressingly tedious apart from a smidgen of energy in a final shootout (notwithstanding an overgenerous use of slow-mo). Every shot trembles with dread, accompanied by Luzi’s voiceover — she says the logging will be dangerous, and by golly, it is! — or cello strings that are bowed, and bowed, and bowed again.
Can’t anyone crack a smile? Probably not, given the amount of applied makeup forcing eyebags to sag lower than a pregnant cow’s udder. No boot steps softly, no glance lights on anything by chance. (And who told Prochaska that blood splatter on the lens was a good idea?) Riley, whose hair never moves, is normally a fine actor, yet here seems coached to project the kind of insular, unknowable Western sternness that few outside Randolph Scott can pull off. His accented German works, given his character, but otherwise he appears merely detached.
At least the winter scenery, mostly shot in Italy’s Alto Adige region near the Austrian border, is suitably spectacular, and the use of horse-opera elements in a Tyrolean backwater feels completely natural. Not so the few insertions of modern songs, especially a version of “Sinner Man” that sounds as if the singer is saying “Cinema, where ya gonna run to?” Best to leave that one alone.