A pallid boy, a dark forest and an indefinable sense of dread powerfully conjure up the primal fears of childhood in Jonas Matzow Gulbrandsen’s superbly assured feature debut “Valley of Shadows.” Shot in 35mm by the director’s brother Marius Matzow Gulbrandsen using achingly beautiful images that feel as if they’re recalling some forgotten legend of Norse mythology (with a touch of Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are”), the film isolates this eerily fair-skinned child in a shadowy landscape of inchoate menace, accompanied by Zbigniew Preisner’s richly realized orchestral score. Post-Toronto exposure doesn’t seem to be as widespread as it deserves, though further festival play might entice buyers willing to take a chance on a haunting sleeper.
While the imagery is influenced by a wide range of artists from Gustave Doré to Norwegian landscape painter Lars Hertervig, “Valley” is completely modern in design even as its concept remains timeless. The location is a nondescript Norwegian town on the edge of a forest (shooting was done in the southwest coastal region), and the trigger is the unexplained, violent killing of some sheep. Lasse (Lennard Salamon) tells his younger friend Aslak (Adam Ekeli) that a werewolf committed the crime; when Aslak’s dog Rapp runs away, the 6-year-old boy enters the neighboring woods to find him, all the while fearful that a monster might be lurking.
Director Matzow Gulbrandsen balances this fairytale-like plot line — informed by “Peter and the Wolf,” Goethe’s “Erl-King” and adult takes on the incipient horror of Grimm-style stories — with trauma at home: one night, policemen come to tell Aslak’s single mom Astrid (Kathrine Fagerland) that her estranged older son is acting violently. Though never on screen, Aslak’s junkie brother adds a level of concrete uneasiness that, woven together with Lasse’s werewolf story and Rapp’s disappearance, create an atmosphere suffused with tension and foreboding.
To the film’s enormous credit, “Valley” never goes as dark as it could have, refusing anything downright cruel or sadistic (barring the briefly seen slaughtered sheep). Instead, Matzow Gulbrandsen’s interests lie in evoking the nascent sense of destabilization lurking in the heart of children on the cusp of self-awareness. His absent brother’s violence, the sense of Astrid as a figure more complex than simply a mother, the disappearance of his dog all eat away at the boy’s tentative sense of security, driving him into terrors, at once palpable and abstract, lurking within a primeval forest inhabited by unknown forces.
The film’s visual design is an integral part of this netherworld between reality and imagination, from Aslak’s shadowy house, where darkly painted walls make the rooms feel out of time and place, to the looming mass of trees that dance and shudder with the wind. The moon’s glow piercing through the forest could have inspired Casper David Friedrich, while a long shot of Aslak at the edge of the blackened woods recalls nightmarish Doré engravings. Young Ekeli’s glowing blond-white hair and pale skin, in a row-boat within the blue-gray penumbra of a tree-shrouded river, calls to mind some half-remembered Arthurian legend, superbly reinforced by Preisner’s masterful orchestrations that climax with choral accompaniment.