Like Andrey Zvyaginstev’s Loveless, which also had a screening at the Toronto International Film Festival, Jonas Matzow Gulbrandsen’s Valley of Shadows is a bleak-looking and picturesque look at a small boy lost in the woods. Both use imagery of isolated forests to setup its ominous, gloomy case. With Loveless, it is barren trees hanging dead over a creek.
In the case of Valley of Shadows, it is a massive green forest flowing against the wind like waves waiting to crash down on the two kids who look on in curiosity over the werewolf that might reside within. The giant facade of trees is reminiscent of the shroud of blinding forest underbrush in Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood, although Gulbrandsen’s forest appears more massive outside than in.
Valley of Shadows is deliberate and silent. Essentially the entire midsection of the film plays out in a measured silence, with the boy Aslak (Adam Ekeli) wandering through the forest, slowly losing his childlike confidence.
Ekeli’s quiet performance as entrancing as it is, all the more impressive given his young age, it is the directorial vision of Gulbrandsen that drives the film. Valley of Shadows holds a drab color palette of earthy hues drained gray. However, the dwelling imagery of a boy dwarfed by the unyielding power of nature can be a sensory overwhelming experience at times. This is especially impressive given the sheer sparseness of the imagery.
Valley of Shadows uses this imagery to depict a child’s struggle with grief, a powerful dark force that is too lofty for him to grapple with. The ambiguity that comes with the conclusion that stems out of this subtext reeks of empathy within suffering, but it also lacks a more poignant statement beyond the moral of not making a monster out of a misunderstanding.
As striking as it is at face value, Valley of Shadows cannot extend to the larger abstract peak that it strives for. Where the boy’s internal struggle is complex, the film works too hard on making an external metaphor out of this conflict to make an emotional impact when the screen cuts to black.
Quite simply, the splendid artistry at work suffocates the potential narrative power of the film. Gulbrandsen clearly has a knack for stark visual tapestries and slow burn pacing. Valley of Shadows just needed more wrinkles in its plot to deliver the experience that it intends to.
Valley of Shadows: B-
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)