There is, perhaps, nothing more frustrating for a cinephile than to finish a film wherein the pieces are stronger than the whole. Where you can understand the intent of a project, yet, whether by style, structure, or some other technical portion, it just doesn’t coalesce into the evocative art it so desperately seeks to be. This is the case with writer/director Lech Majewski’s (The Mill and the Cross) frustrating Valley of the Gods, hitting home video after spending Fall 2019 on the festival circuit. Feeling like a cross between Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and pick a David Lynch project, Valley of the Gods is an exploration of love, wealth, faith, loneliness, and consumerism told primarily through the lens of Navajo legends across 10 chapters and a prologue. The end result is something fantastical and wondrous, yet leaves the audience absolutely disoriented due to a lack of clear focus and structure.
Reeling from a sudden divorce, writer John Ecas (Josh Hartnett) drives into Monument Valley Tribal Park and sets about writing the novel he swore he would always draft. Unbeknownst to John, the land he treads upon is sacred and undergoing a dispute between trillionaire industrialist Wes Tauros (John Malkovich), who wishes to mine the land for minerals, and the local Navajo tribe. As the three parties come to collide, notions of what’s truly valuable come into play as the gods of old come to wage war against the desires of modern man.
One cannot watch Valley without understanding that Majewski has a vision. He manages to capture the majesty of nature with incredible reverence and the grotesque absurdity of opulence in equal measure. He shoots Monument Valley with the deftness of a nature documentary, making either wide shots or close-ups feel extraordinary, as though the audience is being transported to places filled with magical energy. Most importantly, the bulk of Valley is told from the perspective of the Navajo, highlighting the real violations of the American government and global consumerism on the people who live within America’s borders. There is an obvious admiration of the Navajo and a clear disdain for the wealthy, except that’s really all that Valley contains as the rest is so mired in trying to be lofty that it loses the forest for the trees.
Let’s start by looking at Hartnett’s Ecas. He’s the first character we meet, depicted as driving through the night to an unknown location. He’s either lost or wandering, but we know he’s uncertain of his surroundings when he opts to sleep in his car versus seeking a room at a nearby motel. He is the character the audience begins with and it’s his story that the film ends with, yet Valley is not his story. Even when he pulls an antique desk from the back of his SUV and begins to write against the backdrop of the park, this is not his story. Not even slightly. The story really belongs to a group of people more or less led by the second person we meet, Third Eye (Joseph Runningfox), a character who goes unnamed beyond “grandfather” for the entirety of the film. The park, or portions of it featured in the film, harbors the true central narrative and its core characters — Third Eye, Grey Horse (Steven Skyler), Bird Face (John A. Lorenz), and Sweet Water (Owee Rae) — are aren’t just in opposition to Tauros’s bid to own their land, but suffer the indignities of sterilization and other illnesses as a result of excavation already under way. The audience is given glimpses of this struggle, the pain and frustration, throughout the 10 chapters, except it’s difficult to trace what action takes place when in the whole of the film because Majewski opts for a non-linear structure. One may even wonder, due to Majewski’s focus on Ecas as a writer, that the story which unfolds involving Tauros and the strange deviation which includes Bérénice Marlohe’s Karen Kitson, and much of what transpires outside of Third Eye and his people, is entirely fictional, a story dreamt up by Ecas as he purges his anger and frustration of lost love in concert with increased exposure to nature without protection. Using Ecas enables Majewski the flexibility to tie Tauros more directly into the film proper and to more smoothly integrate moments for the exploration of avarice. Beyond this, Ecas is, by and large, unimportant to the narrative yet is treated as the all-important bookends.
The inclusion of Navajo culture as shown by members of the community is a huge deal and treated as such by the film itself. Truly, if the film held fast to Third Eye and his people, perhaps even offered more explanation for those unfamiliar with the culture and community, then there’d be a chance that Valley would possess a more singular focus and pull the audience in further into the narrative. Yet, Valley loses all focus when it deviates from them and onto Ecas. This is not the fault of Hartnett, who does the best he can with what he has, but of the structure and style of the narrative. In the 19-minute “Making Of” featurette, Harnett expresses how Majewski understood what he wanted Valley to be in pre-production, but took a more fluid approach on-set. Given how free from restraint the narrative feels, focused more on emphasizing landscapes and capturing mood over structure, there’s certainly an impressionistic air about Valley, a feeling of trying to evoke emotion from the audience without being as interested in offering any grounding elements. Except this fluidity is obstructed by Valley’s own insistence that everything possesses magnanimous meaning. This somehow explains why Tauros would want to build a catapult based off an unused Leonardo da Vinci design so that he could chuck a vintage car off his mountaintop property for the amusement of his guests. Is it a statement on the vulgarity of wealth? Is it intended as a provocation related to the meaninglessness of money when you can afford anything? It’s a question that lingers until the next truly bizarre thing Tauros does, which, coming back to Ecas, seems to go entirely without reaction or recourse. That is, until Third Eye and his people take part in a ritual that’s slowly built toward for much of the film. It’s one which seems outlandish on its own, but, taken in kind with other elements of Valley, seems to be the only manner in which to resolve Valley.
Valley of the Gods is the kind of film you’ll root for, even as it seems to be utterly disinterested in whether its audience remains engaged. It introduces characters like Kitson who seems to have a larger purpose, but are largely abandoned because reasons. Similarly, Keir Dullea’s (2001: A Space Odyssey) Ulim, Tauros’s butler, mainly provides exposition and creepy companionship but not much else. Yet even as Valley seems intent on pushing the audience further away (ever wanted to watch someone have sex with a rock?), you’ll find yourself perplexed and sticking with it, presuming that something, somehow, will make sense by the end. Sadly, you’re left with more questions than answers and not even the “Making Of” featurette will clear anything up.
Valley of the Gods Special Features
- Making Of (19:15)
- Three (3) Preview Trailers
- One (1) Trailer
Available on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital August 11th, 2020.
For more information, head to the official Valley of the Gods website.
Final Score: 2 out of 5.