Valley of the Gods. What the hell was that? At around an hour in, Lech Majewski’s film starts to look like it’s developing a plot. But until then it’s been a series of scenes/scenarios/situations that don’t seem to be very connected at all.
In one we meet John (Josh Hartnett), a would-be writer trying to hash something out in the desert where the spirit of the Navajo are said to roam. In another a mute beggar on the street called Wes Tauros (John Malkovich), that rare thing – a beggar with a butler (Keir Dullea). Tauros is in fact not a beggar but the richest man in the world. In another a man called Tall Bitter Water, a spokesman for his fellow Native Americans anxious that his people come out at the right end of a deal currently being brokered by a company that wants to extract uranium from their land. And in another Karen Kitson (Bérénice Marlohe), a woman being sculpted into a facsimile of the rich man’s dead wife by a team of beauticians.
Things start to coalesce after the writer has a massive flame-out and winds up seeing a shrink (John Rhys-Davies), who suggests John start doing random things in an attempt to break his creative logjam. Which explains why John is next spotted bouldering out in the desert with all the pots and pans from his kitchen dangling beneath him on a rope. And why he is later walking blindfold backwards through a city street, where he narrowly escapes being knocked over by the same car as recently ran over the beggar/rich man, who is at this point sitting cross legged nearby and watching John’s progress.
John might have been called on to write Tauros’s biography, or what we’re watching might be the outpouring of his unblocked creativity, it isn’t really certain, but shots cutting back regularly to a furiously scribbling John out in the desert, shirtless, suggest something along those lines. The fact that Keir Dullea is in it, star of 2001: A Space Odyssey, immediately suggests Kubrick, and there is that definite detachment you get in a Kubrick film, though Majewski also has Paolo Sorrentino in his sights. This is a ravishing looking film with an operatic ambience, in other words, the cinematography (by Majewski and co-DP Pawel Tybora) making it worth a look alone.
Lovers of plot, forget it, this isn’t that sort of film. At one point a Rolls Royce Phantom V is launched into the night from a catapult made from drawings by Leonardo Da Vinci – that’s how rich Tauros is, and how rabid Majewski’s imagination.
For Malkovich all this sort of madcappery is business as usual, but for Hartnett it seems to be a dip back in the direction of oddball films like Lucky Number Slevin and I Come with the Rain which he started appearing in after deciding not to take the executive elevator to the Brad Pitt floor made available after the likes of actioner Black Hawk Down and romcom 40 Days and 40 Nights.
Majewski is a self-consciously arthouse director and everyone in this movie speaks in an arthouse movie way. Conversations never flow and consist mostly of non seqiturs. All apart from the Navajo, the only people who act and behave like rational human beings throughout. The land the uranium company wants to buy is called The Valley of the Gods, so it is their film, in a way.
“Keir Dullea, gone tomorrow,” quipped Noel Coward acidly when he saw the hot new talent on the set of 1965’s Bunny Lake Is Missing, but it’s Dullea who has the last laugh in this film. Almost. That privilege will probably go to the viewer who gets to the end, only to be confronted by a completely random shot of a giant baby stomping through the city and laying it waste. What the hell!
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© Steve Morrissey 2021