Michael Burns’ Peaks and Valleys is an intriguing character study sandwiched between a shocking beginning and frustrating end, that somehow manages to work.
A slow steady-cam shot of the de-skinning, de-boning and cooking of a rabbit carcass is a pretty bold statement to make in the opening scene of a film. Especially when it’s followed up by the body of a young woman being chucked out of a plane. It’s a jarring ten minutes right off the bat, and yet feels completely in step with the rest of Michael Burns’ (Proper Binge) Peaks and Valleys on reflection.
Jack (Kevin T. Bennett) has isolated himself in a remote cabin, deep in the Alaskan wilderness. When his peace is shattered by an unexpected plane flying overhead, he doesn’t expect to go outside and see a body wrapped in plastic being tossed from it and into a lake. Rushing into the water when he sees the body start to thrash and move, he finds himself caring for Bailey (Kitty Mahoney), a young woman weaning off drugs and, understandably, traumatised by her experiences.
Burns’ film is very much a two-hander, with Mahoney and Bennett spending the majority of the film in a tight space together, alternately chaffing at and being soothed by the proximity of the other. Interestingly, the film forgoes exploring much outside of the pair’s interactions; individual circumstances are side-lined for reluctant-camaraderie and co-existence, and side plots are kept relatively vague. The jarring first third gives way to what is, essentially, a subtle character study, before climaxing in an equally jarring – if somewhat predictable – final act. It’s curious turn of events that works within the context of the narrative, but may have benefitted from a bit more exploration. The film is at its most enjoyable as the antagonism between Jack and Bailey eases into a rapport, but a deeper dive into the darker aspects of each character individually wouldn’t necessarily have taken anything away from Burns’ clear interest in the dynamic of them as a pair.
Cinematographer Bryan Pentecostes relishes in the untouched ruggedness of the landscape, emphasising both its harshness and its beauty in some of the stunning visuals. Outside of Jack’s cabin and away from the woods, the deliberately ambiguous camera work highlights the narrative frustrations mentioned previously, but the gorgeous Alaskan scenery helps to handwave those quibbles.
As their small space of isolation succumbs to winter, the relationship between Jack and Bailey warms up. Jack’s outright rudeness and Bailey’s mulishness ease as they form an unlikely duo, and make up the heart of the film. There’s some stiltedness in their performances, but it’s not enough to constitute labelling them as bad. Instead, it’s a naturalness that lends itself to the nature of the film.
Peaks and Valleys is ultimately an independent Alaskan film that keeps itself contained and intimate. Developing some of the narrative issues might have elevated it a bit more, but as it stands, watching Jack and Bailey thaw and interact with one another balances a somewhat shaky beginning and end into something personal and overall enjoyable. And definitely highlights Alaska as somewhere to visit in future.
Peaks and Valleys is now available to watch on Prime Video.