Michael Burn’s Peaks and Valleys, is a wonderful character study of two people who find each other at the right time. With memorable performances in a gorgeous setting, this is a drama that captivates you from beginning to end.
Jack (Kevin T. Bennett) has been living in his secluded cabin in the Alaskan wilderness in a peaceful quietness until one day a black plastic bag is thrown from a plane onto his lake revealing to be a horribly beaten young woman Bailey (Kitty Mahoney). Stuck on what to do next, Jack has to decide how to keep his new companion alive and what that means for him.
Peaks and Valleys lets its audience know what kind of film it is from that start as we watch our protagonist retrieve, skin and cook a rabbit near his cabin. It is a cold and harsh scene that doesn’t hold back on its punches to audiences, so if you are squeamish be aware, for you have been warned. While that scene and some others give the film a look of being cold (being set in the Alaskan wilderness in the snow will have that feeling to a film) there is a lot of heart and warm here in this investing character study.
As Bailey keeps her defences up towards this mysterious man, and living in the fear that those who left her for dead may come back for her, she remains combative and a difficult relationship begins to form with Jack as he attempts in his own rough way to help her recover from her trauma. As said this is a well-crafted character study of a woman who is taught how to appreciate life for its simpler things while also growing as a person and becoming someone who will not be caught out by men as she was previously. We also have a man who is in a self-imposed exile from everyone he has pushed away in his life and has to learn to allow someone in to his closed off soul.
What strikes most about Peaks and Valleys is how it lacks the usual clichés that you would expect in an independent feature such as this, writer Michael Dillion has given us a script that allows his characters to show their vulnerability around each other as they both navigate difficulties in their lives. By focusing on the ever changing dynamic between the two we are not caught up in the usual trappings that would fill a film about two people being alone in the wilderness. The open nature of the script allows us quite quickly to see that there is far more going on under the surface.
Under Michael Burns direction we are given a claustrophobic drama, despite the film being shot wonderfully by Bryan Pentecostes alone in the Alaskan wilderness, we are rarely provided with distant shots of our characters, the camera is up close and personal in that small cabin, with the characters feeling further trapped with one another from the start. However, as they begin to form a stronger connection, that same little cabin, begins to feel a lot bigger and open, particularly so in a guitar playing scene. Simple tricks such as making his audience feel they are as cramped as the two characters works wonders for your mindset as you get easily sucked into the piece. So when we do go outside in some scenes, we feel as if we can breathe. This is very smart and effective filmmaking.
Bennett’s is astoundingly good here as the sullen and grizzled Jack. A character who on first glance could very easily be seen as quite one note, thanks to Dillion’s writing however Bennett is able to capture the complex nature of Jack and make him a fully three dimensional character who we can cling onto. Whether it be when he is firing off sharp lines towards Bailey or being quietly pleased when she starts to pull her own weight around the cabin, especially so in a wonderful little scene on the lake as he teaches her how to fish. We see the full scope of his character.
Yet for all of the thick skin and tough demeanour he tries to present around Bailey, we sense something else about him. There is a warmth and heartbreak about his character that just never shirks away from your mind and while clues are littered throughout as to the reasoning behind that, Bennett capably gives us a character to feel towards.
On the other side of this we have Kitty Mahoney’s Bailey who comes into the film with an almighty thump. Where Jack is quiet in his contemplation, she is a ball of energy throughout Peaks and Valleys as she tries to navigate what exactly has happened to her and the troubles she has living in such sparse conditions with, what has to be said a rather unwelcome companion. Mahoney, gives her all in her performance here as her character starts the film in as vulnerable way as imaginable, to slowly grow and become a strong person who challenges.
What makes these characters work so well is that at times Jack comes across as a man that time forgot, as if he should be in a Western across from John Wayne or John Wayne himself with the way some lines are delivered, equally, despite being a victim to a horrendous attack, we become agitated by the actions of Bailey to her rescuer, this is certainly the case when it plainly obvious that he isn’t going to attack her, though she has just gone through one hell of an experience, so that maybe can be excused. But as said, they both evolve as the film goes on and importantly, they evolve naturally, you buy into these arcs with the greatest of eases.
As the film works its way towards the final act, you are never quite sure what way it will end, yet what does happen is a wonderfully executed and captivating finale, that brings the strengths of both actors and their characters to the fore. It is always a difficult task to take on a well worn premise and to breathe new life into it, but Burns and Dillion have been able to do so here. Their characters stay with you, as well as the gorgeous Alaskan wilderness.
Peaks and Valleys is as captivating as a film as you will see this year, paced to perfection coupled with some wondrous shots of the wilds of Alaska, this is a film that takes you away with ease.
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