Directed by: Michael Burns
Written by: Michael B. Dillon
Starring: Kevin T. Bennett, Kitty Mahoney
Indie Film Review by: William Hemingway
Peaks and Valleys film review
Peaks and Valleys movie poster
Any fans of Red Dead Redemption will be able to tell you that the Great American Wilderness is an unforgiving place. It may look pretty through glorious sunrises and stunning sunsets, whether covered in lush, green vegetation or a blanket of cold, driven snow, but ultimately its harsh, relentless nature will always out in the end. To survive in this rugged landscape it is necessary to develop certain skills that have become alien to mainline, snowflake city dwellers; skills like hunting and fishing and skinning and tanning and an ability to be with yourself – just you and the wilderness. In Peaks and Valleys, writer Michael B Dillon and director Michael Burns both show with great skill their understanding of this survivor spirit and imbue their main character Jack (Bennett) with bucketfuls of it as they introduce us to him and his simplistic way of life.
What starts as just another day for Jack, as he checks his traps and almost lazily skins and bones the rabbit he has caught, turns into something altogether more problematic when he sees a low flying plane dump what he assumes to be trash into the lake that he uses for fishing. However, when he notices the dumped black bag moving and spots a hand reaching out from within, Jack knows that his peace has been shattered in a more lasting way. Thus we now have to deal with Bailey (Mahoney), a bound and beaten junkie seemingly scraped from the dregs of that far away society, cast aside and left for dead by those who had used and abused her, and in Jack’s mind at least, what was probably ‘good riddance to bad rubbish’. Jack’s humanity hasn’t entirely escaped him though and after saving Bailey from certain death he resolves himself to bring her back to some semblance of life – although to what purpose we don’t yet know.
So, with our odd-couple set up, the focus shifts to learning more about the main characters and watching what they reveal about themselves as they interact with one another. Initially playing to type, Jack comes across as a hard-nosed old grizzly who has no time or patience for softness or sentimentality, while Bailey whines and complains like a regular petulant teenager as she tries to comprehend the reality of her new and basic existence. It would be very easy then for Dillon and Burns to use this as the basis for the rest of their movie as the two main leads clash and butt heads with one another highlighting the differences between both their worlds, however, like the wilderness that encapsulates this entire story, there is a much greater depth at play than can be seen at first glance.
It would also have been very easy for Dillon and Burns to turn this scenario into a psycho-sexual thriller with Bailey having to fend off the increasing advances of her saviour come captor, but thankfully they sidestep this tired narrative too, and keep the threat placed elsewhere. Whilst it may not be immediately obvious from his language and demeanour that Jack is a ‘good guy’, he sets out his boundaries clearly and invites no question that he sees Bailey as a child – one to be pitied and educated, but definitely not one to be exploited – and this is all to the film-makers’ credit.
What we get then is a charming character study and a coming together of two opposing attitudes playing out within the pressure cooker of a secluded cabin in the woods. Survival is foremost on both characters’ minds but both still have ghosts to wrestle with as they try to adapt to their unasked for situation. Alongside the grizzly roughness of reality in the wilderness, there is time for soft humour and glimmers of mutual appreciation and it is these that allow us a proper insight into who these two characters might actually be outside the confines of the cabin. There is no need for the audience to ask too many questions as these small reveals keep us interested in the main dynamic all the way up to the point where something has to give. And give it does.
By the time the final act comes around the audience may well have figured out most of what’s going to come next but that doesn’t take anything away from the shock and release that is felt when it eventually does come. The crafting of the set-up and the dynamic of the duo reels us in slowly and completely before the denouement catches us in the net and bangs us over the head. The effectiveness of this release comes from the time taken in the telling of the story. Nothing is rushed, everything is stripped back and the characters are allowed to breathe. Bryan Pentecostas’ cinematography beautifully captures the elements of danger and wonderment within the Alaskan landscape and Burns intersperses these with the character scenes to mirror the inner dichotomy between the two leads. Evan Evans’ score also adds an extra dimension to the space and seclusion of the wilderness highlighting in turns its glorious but fearsome nature. Burns skillfully weaves all these together to build a narrative that feels natural and real and which leads the viewer without ever misleading them.
The two leads also do an incredible job of inhabiting their characters and fleshing them out into three-dimensional people when they could so easily have remained as one-note stereotypes. Kevin T Bennett perfectly plays out the rough, gruff lines that keep Jack firmly rooted in the outdoors, but then switches seamlessly to soft, considerate, contemplative emotions when faced with some of the more humanistic elements of his story. His physicality in the role should also be complimented as his thin, lean frame and the bountiful growing out of his beard encapsulate entirely the being of someone who has to hunt and kill for their own sustenance and survival. Kitty Mahoney has no easier job of it as a fish out of water trying to kick a drug habit and she handles the mood swings and conflicting emotions of fear, anger, determination, pride and vulnerability with a supreme deftness. In the end what you feel for these characters comes down to an expert matching up of acting, writing and directing which all pulls together brilliantly to offer a realism and investment that might not otherwise have been present.
What Peaks and Valleys offers is a well-rounded story with well-grounded characters along with a sprinkling of action and a whole load of soul searching. Its title accurately describes the range of emotions the viewer will experience as they share this story with its main characters whilst also pointing to the dual nature within all of us. If you’re looking to go on a pioneering journey without leaving the comfort of your armchair you will be hard pressed to find a better way to do it than watching this. Independent film making with real independent spirit.