Using the folkloric tropes of a deep, dark wood and tales of a beast terrorising the countryside, with his feature debut Valley of Shadows Norwegian director Jonas Matzow Gulbrandsen has crafted one of the year’s finest, most deeply affecting psychological dramas.
As with all the best ghost stories, this one starts with a family in crisis. Aslak’s (Adam Ekeli) older delinquent brother is missing, possibly dead. His mother (Katherine Fagerland), already frantic searching for her one son, doesn’t like her youngest hanging around with his older friend, understandably fearing a repeat of her older son’s path. Meanwhile, the boys have taken in upon themselves to investigate the horrible deaths of mutilated sheep in the surrounding farmland.
The adults suspect a wild animal, or a lunatic – Aslak’s brother’s timely disappearance makes him a possible culprit but as far as the boys are concerned, only a werewolf could have done something like this. The film’s family themes and Scandinavian austerity invariably bring to mind Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In, and the forests loom over the farm recall the setting of last year’s The Witch. But this is a fundamentally different beast, keeping the mystery of the monster tightly wound and adopting a more psychological bent than those dyed-in-the-wool supernatural thrillers.
Valley of Shadows’ relentlessly slow pace and lack of narrative incident will doubtless turn off gore hounds after a quick fix of lupine action, and it’s fair say that the film’s house-bound middle section has more than its fair share of moping around. But things pick up when Aslak’s dog creepily growls at something just out of frame before bolting for the woods, prompting Aslak to brave the forest alone. It’s in this sequence that Valley of Shadows truly comes into its own. Channelling a near-Tarkovskian sense of space, Gulbrandsen imbues every tree branch and every shaft of light with ethereal life, captured beautifully by his brother Marius’ cinematography.
Seen through the eyes of a nine-year old boy, shivering and alone, the mundane becomes mystical, and the dangerous becomes the alluring. Provisioned only with a ketchup sandwich, time bends and stretches irregularly as day passes into night. A journey up the river on an abandoned rowing boat is pregnant with symbolic meaning, but it his encounter with a stranger in a cabin – the closest the film gets to a real ‘monster’ – that leaves the most indelible impression, a subtly transformative experience for Aslak. At once tender, eerie and surreal, Valley of Shadows is a coming-of-age tale like no other.