The Dark Valley on Netflix Instant: Sam Riley Takes Control in Spaetzle Western

the dark valley sam riley
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If I had to pick my top contributors to the Western movie genre, the name John would not be among them. I would forego Wayne, Ford and Huston for the likes of Sam (Peckinpah), Sergio (Leone), Larry (McMurtry) and Cormac (McCarthy). Now I know that the work of these later auteurs stands on the shoulders of classic Westerns of the ‘40s and ‘50s. Films like The Treasure of Sierra Madre and The Searchers at one time defined the face of American pop culture.

John Wayne Camel cigarette ad

The Duke: as American as apple pie, Don Draper and lung cancer.

But in the same way that it’s a ridiculously antiquated, sentimentalist notion to call Citizen Kane the greatest movie ever made, it should be acknowledged that Western filmmaking and its underlying ideologies have changed and, lord forbid, evolved since the era of neckerchief-clad, lassoo-twirling dandies roundin’ up Injuns.

More to the point: I like my Westerns weird, bleak and bloody. I love the heightened style and sparse dialogue that Leone and Eastwood pioneered. And while The Wild Bunch isn’t my favorite Peckinpah movie, it introduced concepts to the genre that had been missing—namely blood, the vulgarity of humans killing humans, and an outlaw’s sense of humor about these things.

Sam Peckinpah Isela Vega NSFW

Sam Peckinpah had his head in the right place (pictured with Isela Vega on the set of 1974’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia).

But one thing hasn’t changed. From Ford to Leone and Peckinpah to modern classics like No Country for Old Men, Hollywood—and the world at large—seems as smitten with the genre as it was back in the days of Hopalong Cassidy.

The past few decades have seen some sterling additions, including Tommy Lee Jones’ The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005), Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007, what an asshole of a title) and John Hillcoat’s The Proposition (2005).

Guy Pearce The Proposition

Guy Pearce in Australia’s The Proposition—one of the best Westerns of the past few decades.

Those last two films come from a Kiwi and an Aussie director, respectively. I mention this because the genre has become so widespread that the lore of the American West has perhaps been best expressed over the past decade via foreign manifestations.

Which brings us to Germany, where in the 1960s, a Western film movement based on Karl May’s Winnetou books brought cowboys and Indians to the Krauts. But times have changed, and the German-Austrian film The Dark Valley is to Winnetou what No Country was to those “John” classics.

It’s a Western that draws from several corners of the Earth to shape its familiar yet refreshingly stylized narrative. While the title of “Best German Western Ever” might not impress, I’ll further that by saying that Dark Valley is one of this millennium’s stronger additions to one of the most beloved and badass genres of all-time.

The Dark Valley
sam riley the dark valley

The first time I watched The Dark Valley, I couldn’t stop thinking about Clint Eastwood’s High Plains Drifter (1973). Like Drifter, Valley introduces us to an ominous and silent figure who enters a small town on horseback. In both films, it’s hinted at early on that our mysterious protagonist has arrived to avenge horrific sins of the past. And in both films, it is a dark, torturous secret in the town’s history that is the calling card for bloody retribution.

But High Plains Drifter isn’t the only film that seems to have heavily influenced director Andreas Prochaska’s suspense tale set in the 19th Century Austrian Alps. There’s an undercurrent of fear and unease among the townsfolk perpetrated by some dark secret that’s reminiscent of what was going on in M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village.

And then there’s the snowy, ramshackle lumber town itself—and one particular climactic scene involving this setting—that brings to mind Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller (a film that’s in or near my all-time top ten). Finally, there’s some wonderfully stylistic audiovisual sequences that evoke that eerie theme from Ravenous, the score from There Will Be Blood, or really just about any moment in Nicolas Winding-Refn’s Drive.

So there’s your laundry list of comparisons. I mention them mainly because The Dark Valley is a film of patchwork style and influence. This eclectic range extends to its superb lead, Sam Riley—the lone British actor cast in a German film with German dialogue (Important note: Netflix defaults to a dubbed version for U.S. audiences—switch to German with English subtitles).

Control: phenomenal movie.

Riley in Control: phenomenal movie.

Which raises the question, Where the fuck has Sam Riley been? He broke through with his incredible depiction of Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis in Anton Corbijn’s Control (2007)—a film I’d put alongside Ida (also on Netflix Instant) as having the most stunning black-and-white cinematography of the 21st Century. Since, he’s had forgettable roles in big-budget flicks (Maleficent) and a few big roles in forgettable indie flicks (On the Road, Brighton Rock).

Anyway, old Sam returns to form in The Dark Valley as Greider, a Yank who’s travelled to an isolated Austrian mountain town under the guise of an Ansel Adams-inspired photographic mission.

greider sam riley dark valley

Portrait of the gunman as a young artist…

The town is run by Old Brenner, an iron-fisted tyrant who, along with his six sons, upholds a decades-old tradition of shame that keeps the villagers in perpetual fear. Tensions begin to mount as a girl whose family Greider is staying with finds herself in line for the sadistic ritual.

Like Riley’s performance, The Dark Valley builds with a slow burn that might detract viewers looking for a 3:10 to Yuma-style shoot ’em up. Valley is an atmospheric Western. Part of that means Sam Riley spending quite a bit of time brooding while he looks at himself in a mirror, backdropped by eerie noise music. It also means plenty of gorgeous camera work around the sublime snow-covered valley where the film is set.

the dark valley netflix

Ah, the Alps: Home to Sound of Music, frolicking goats and inbred psycopaths.

When the chips begin to fall, however, the film is as suspenseful and stylistically glorious as any of the recent Western triumphs I’ve mentioned. In particular, the brilliant cinematography mixed with Riley’s escalating emotional range bring us to one of the most phenomenal climactic shootout scenes the genre has seen in the past few decades. Director Prochaska embellishes all of this with a murderous montage set to the tune of a song by indie band Steaming Satellites (although I’m sure some purists may hate this scene for its hyperreal blending of new and old).

the dark valley netflix instant

Rooster Cogburn wants his eyepatch back…

Due to its initially tedious pace and rather conventional narrative, The Dark Valley isn’t exactly on the same level as modern classics like The Three Burials, The Proposition and No Country. Still, when pitted against the slew of simply above-average Western flicks of the past few years that Netflix Instant has to offer (Sweetwater and Blackthorn come to mind), Valley is a damn fine piece of filmmaking, aided particularly by Prochaska’s style, Thomas Kienast’s cinematography and Riley’s controlled performance.

GRADE: B+
IMDb: 7.2

-Sam Adams

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Outback Invasion: Mystery Road and the Need for Neo-Ozploitation on Netflix Instant

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Australia is the new South Korea. No, that’s not the title of Jenji Kohan’s latest project about a ragtag Outback family that practices cutesy incest and quirky torture-porn revenge killings. It’s a realization I’ve come to after watching Animal Kingdom, The Snowtown Murders, The Rover, Wolf Creek and a handful of other extremely bleak, atmospheric and depraved Aussie films.

the rover

“Time to grow up and act, Pattinson. Fuck Team Edward!”

The common threads among these titles? They’re all good—some of them really good. They all also attract the same type of viewer that took pleasure in Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance Trilogy, I Saw the Devil, The Chaser, The Man from Nowhere… again, the list goes on.

The bottom line: If you like cinematic savagery, revenge tales, serial killer flicks and moody, thought-provoking horror mysteries that make Saw look like the slasher genre’s village idiot, then look no further than eastward (South Korea) and Down Under.

the man from nowhere

The Man from Nowhere introduces us to the increasingly popular South Korean sport of bowling with human eyes.

While I’ve already chronicled a few of the great South Korean titles on Netflix Instant, I must admit that I’ve had trouble coming up with a comparable streaming list for what some have dubbed “neo-Ozploitation“—the current wave of flicks that harken back to the blood, sex and existential bleakness that was low-budget Australian cinema in the ’70s and ’80s. One reason for this is that, at least in terms of modern-era comparisons, the South Korean flicks are, generally, slightly superior. The other is that Netflix Instant has a strong reservoir of dark South Korean titles, but a less impressive one for the Aussies.

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Dear Netflix: I humbly submit my pitch…

The Snowtown Murders, for example, is a more-than-decent, gruesome true-crime flick. And I’d say The Horseman, a bloody revenge tale, is even stronger than Snowtown. Both are on Netflix Instant. But neither of these stack up to heavyweights like I Saw the Devil or the Vengeance Trilogy (also on Instant). Chief among the best dark films to come out of Australia in the past decade would be Animal Kingdom, The Proposition (a Western), The Rover and Chopper. Unfortunately, none of these are available streaming. (Note: I have yet to see The Babadook or The Loved Ones, but… they aren’t on Instant either. And Wake in Fright, which would have been a great intro to this movement, just got removed.)

Wake in Fright

Wake in Fright (1971): a boozy, Ozploitation classic.

Which begs the question: What’s a poor guy who blogs about great, dark Netflix Instant movies to do when he wants to focus on Australian murder cinema?

I guess I’ll dive into a flick that was just released which, while not great, is a solid-enough addition to the canon of Australian crime cinema—as well as something that’s far less likely to be known than Snowtown or The Horseman. Then I’ll leave it up to the Redditing hordes to point and chastise me in the direction of a follow-up piece.

Oh, and as for Wolf Creek, it’s not available either. Wolf Creek 2, however, is. Now personally, I loved both of these. But there’s a certain level of campy horror you have to be into to like the Wolf Creeks. Still, if you dug the first one, Wolf Creek 2 is just as good, if not more outrageously enjoyable (and its best scene is a hilariously gory homage to Wake in Fright.)

Anyway, on to our feature presentation, and in the words of Mick Taylor…
Wolf Creek 2


 ….

Mystery Road
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Like many a recent Aussie crime flick, a mood of grim, existential pondering looms heavy throughout director Ivan Sen’s Mystery Road. This is achieved largely through lingering shots of sublime Outback landscapes and the depiction of one man’s quest for justice in a lawless and corrupt culture. For the majority of the film, the seeming futility of our hero’s endeavor only adds to this bleak aura.

This recipe has been done over and again in Aussie films as of late. Why? Probably because there’s a certain intrigue to the isolated creepiness of the Outback, as well as the question of which forces will emerge victorious in situational throwbacks to the uncivilized, badlands of Spaghetti Westerns.

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Clint as The Man with No Name and Aaron Pederson as Det. Jay Swan: a pair of badass, cowboy-hat-wearing loners who don’t say much.

Set in rural Queensland, Mystery Road introduces the stoic Det. Jay Swan (Aaron Pederson) as he investigates the murder of a teenage prostitute. Foul play is at hand, but because the deceased was Aboriginal, no one in “Jay-boy’s” white-bread department seems to give two shits. As Jay slowly (and I mean languorously fucking slowly) connects the dots between his family, trucker Johns, drug dealers and possible “wild super dogs,” he begins to realize that his department’s neglect of the murder goes much deeper than mere racism.

A strong supporting cast includes Hugo Weaving (Agent Smith from The Matrix) as a duplicitous narc, and an uncle of Jay’s (Jack Charles) who bears a striking resemblance to traditional Western depictions of that “Jesus’ dad” guy.

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Jack Charles: Australian for God.

But back to that “grim, existential crime drama” recipe. Just because it’s an intriguing one, that doesn’t mean its inclusion automatically creates an intelligent thriller. I’m sure many would use the terms “contemplative” or “meditative” to express what’s going on in Mystery Road and films like it. Of course, to others, such terms are pretentious euphemisms for “really fucking long and boring.” Personally, I’d say Mystery Road falls somewhere in between those two realms of an artfully crafted mood piece and a film that, quite honestly, doesn’t have enough to say to justify its run time of 121 minutes.

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This Stephen Shore-esque still pretty much sums up the amount of action Mystery Road delivers for the bulk of its two hours.

That said, here’s why Mystery Road works for me: When this blog first started, I talked about the idea of grim, existentialist thrillers working as a sort of relaxant for certain cinematic brains—just like the fad of ASMR. Mystery Road is exactly the kind of movie I was talking about. The pacing is slower than a crippled echidna, but I found the entire ride very satisfying. Essentially, it’s just 100 minutes of high-tension, low-action crime trance, followed by a refreshingly loud and bloody payoff. In other words, I’d argue that the climax of Mystery Road not only justifies the prolonged lull that precedes it, but that the lull itself is intriguing in its own right. Then again, it’s really only worthwhile if you’re the kind of person that gets off on that sort of trance piece…

So let’s do a quick litmus test: Did you enjoy Nicolas Winding Refn’s highly divisive Only God Forgives? If so, you’ll be just fine with Mystery Road. If you didn’t like that as a mood piece (forget the narrative), you should probably steer clear of this flick—although, to its credit, the climactic scene is much more rewarding in Mystery Road. And while it doesn’t completely resolve itself, there is certainly more of a discernible story line than in Winding Refn’s feature-length karaoke video.

only god forgives

“Wanna fight? … Or would you prefer mood-lighting and an open mic?”

For another comparison’s sake, perhaps it’s best to view Mystery Road as a slightly better, artier, longform Outback rendition of an episode of Longmire. (Aaron Pederson could definitely hold his own in a cop series.)

Mystery Road doesn’t reach the heights of Animal Kingdom or The Proposition, but its certainly no disservice to the “neo-Ozploitation” fad. The only issue I have with the current state of this genre? We need more of it.

GRADE: B
IMDb: 6.4

-Sam Adams

NOTES: If you get on an Australian film kick and want to get back to some classics via DVD, also check out Picnic at Hanging Rock and Walkabout. And here’s a fantastic list of some classic Ozploitation flicks.
-Also, Noise on on Netflix Instant is a strange-but-worthwhile modern Aussie cop thriller (its big-city setting, among other factors, rendered it unrelatable to other titles in this post.)
-And lastly, I made it through this entire piece without a “shrimp on the barbie” joke. You’re welcome.