Dear Bobby Vanonen,
Drumheller is a tourist trap town in the middle of the Alberta badlands, guarded by the “World’s Largest Dinosaur” and a giant plaster Jesus. It already looks like a movie set—just not the droll, Tim Burton type. In The Valley Below, you managed to capture the suffocating timelessness of Drumheller – with its dusty, old-timey main street and desolate highway stretches and strip malls – and turn it into a place from a Larry McMurtry novel, where the inhabitants are restless and stuck. Even the colourful fibreglass dinosaurs dotting the town seem forlorn.
The Valley Below follows four loosely connected characters over the course of a year: Kate, a pregnant teen about to go to university; Warren, an alcoholic Zamboni driver and songwriter; Kate’s dad Gordon, a taxidermist trying to save his marriage; and Barry, a cop and local radio DJ with a sensitive streak. The world these characters inhabit is one of breathtaking vistas and desolate futures. It’s a place literally surrounded by skeletons. It’s the kind of world that is easy to get wrong—or, worse, to accidentally condescend to. Thankfully, your unpretentious art direction and design manages to avoid hollow imitation.
Writer/Director/Producer Kyle Thomas understands this world. The assured, natural performances serve the spare style beautifully. There is an unaffectedness here that is rare for a Canadian film. None of it reeks of try-too-hard. Just like your modest design, which is always present, yet never obvious. When Kate picks up her goofy boyfriend on the morning after a house party, we see a pig’s head floating in a kiddy pool on the front lawn. Warren’s bungalow is strewn with just enough empty bottles and dirty dishes to make it seem like it wasn’t set-decorated. You’ve been to that house party. You’ve been to that bungalow. You know these people. But more importantly, we know these people.
You filled Gordon’s small workshop with every manner of awls, furs, and tools. Before he begins assembling a deer’s head trophy, he takes off his wedding ring and hangs it on a pair of antlers behind him. It’s a small, thoughtful action that tells us volumes about this man and his situation. As he works at making the deer look as lifelike as possible - stitching the fur and choosing from a selection of glass eyes - we realize he’s done the same with his seemingly perfect marriage. Barry has a model train set in his basement that resembles a miniature Drumheller: plastic Jesus, dinos, and all. It’s more than just a symbol of how he watches over his town. It’s a metaphor about perspective. The town may be small, but it is dwarfed by the character’s desires.
The overlapping nature of the narrative structure never feels contrived the way most multi-narrative films often do. Thomas holds shots for exactly the right time, only lingering when it serves the story. His edits are confident and deliberate. There is a hint of Altman’s Nashville in his method, both in the music and in the film’s episodic nature. There are shades of Alexander Payne’s Nebraska in your visual style, from the depressing motel rooms, to the dark and desperate taverns. Somewhere in between, you found the Drumheller of The Valley Below, a place that is ageless yet eerily recognizable. A place where nothing – and everything – happens.
Thank you for letting this tourist hang with the locals for a while.