A little gem of a suspense thriller is being given a limited release this week from director/co-writer Dan Glaser. Although the story is much different than the currently in release Wind River, Valley of Bones shares one very simple concept with that film: even if you win, you lose because you’re still stuck living where you live. In the cast of Bones, the location is the relentless badlands of North Dakota where paleontologist Anna (Autumn Reeser) has been searching for a big find, to the point of obsession and largely ignoring her 10-year-old son Ezekiel (Mason Mahay), who would like very much to be a part of her life.
Borrowing heavily from the book of noir, the film gifts the audience with more of the complete picture than any one character, so quite often we see collisions and conflicts coming where none of the players do. A drug-addicted oil worker named McCoy (Steven Molony) makes the mother of all fossil discoveries—a complete T-Rex that will pull a big price on the collectors market. He tips Anna to the find because he knows she can extract it without destroying it, and she sets out to do just that with the help of her eager son and her late husband’s brother, a mechanic named Nate (Rhys Coiro). Things get further complicated when a drug lord (Mark Margolis from “Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul”) shows up, finds out about the bones, and wants them for himself. And before long, the film pits nearly all of the characters against each other in a battle over these damn remains.
Filmmaker Glaser (this is his fourth indie feature) wisely uses not only the plot to inform the characters but the way they use and adjust to their desert surroundings. We get a true sense of the cruel landscape (thanks in large part to cinematographer Michael Alden Lloyd’s work) and the creatures that exist in it. The search for a lost set of keys, for example, leads to a nasty encounter with a rattlesnake, which turns into a medical emergency for one character. I really liked the way Anna’s obsession with re-establishing her professional reputation drives her to such a point where she ignores her maternal duties. These are not the traits of your typical movie heroes, and to allow her to be this flawed feels like an honest win for the film.
Valley of Bones is thick with a gritty Western atmosphere on top of its noirish flourishes, and I’m pretty sure there is a message or two about the past coming back to haunt us in different ways. The biggest issues with the film is that it runs too short, and it left me wanting a bit more depth from its characters, but the nasty, drawn-out, bloody battle for the bones is an impressive, well-paced series of small set pieces, and the result is downright impressive, tense, and even heartfelt in places. This one took me by surprise, and when that happens, I tend to take notice.