Magic Valley: Film Review

Magic Valley Still H 2011
Gorgeous heartland tragedy lacks sustainable drama.

The beautifully shot murder mystery marks an underwhelming debut for writer-director Jaffe Zinn.

An exquisitely shot portrait of one troubling day-in-the-life of a small Idaho town, Magic Valley reps an aesthetically impressive, dramatically underwhelming debut for writer-director Jaffe Zinn. Combining a Short Cuts-style structure with evocative widescreen imagery reminiscent of early Terence Malick and, more recently, Jeff Nichols, this murder mystery-cum-bucolic mood piece should continue its fest run following berths at Tribeca and Rome. Niche arthouse and VOD play are likely.

Shot in and around Zinn’s hometown of Buhl, the networking narrative follows a handful of characters who, unbeknownst to themselves, will soon be linked together by the death of a local teenage girl. Yet rather than concentrating on the plot’s whodunit aspects à la AMC’s The Killing, Zinn focuses on the daily routines of these ordinary country folk, revealing a certain calm before the storm that will blow in once the tragedy is revealed.

Among the locals featured are the girl’s parents: struggling fish farmer, Jerry (Brad William Henke) and his wife (Alison Elliot); a sheriff (Scott Glenn) and his deputy (Will Estes); two young boys (Daniel Frandson, Landon Abercrombie) who come across the dead body while playing in their backyard; and a brooding skateboarder, TJ (Kyle Gallner), whose dark mood swings grow increasingly suspicious as the day wears on.

Cutting repeatedly between all the characters to the point that it takes some time to figure out who’s who, the story is less concerned with developing a thriller-style suspense than with portraying varying slices of country life, many of them foreboding about what’s to come (e.g. dead salmon floating in a pond; teenagers playing a disturbing game of auto-asphyxiation). Such vignettes are delivered with technical precision and a certain level of realism by Zinn and cinematographer Sean Kirby (Police Beat, The Tillman Story), whose camera glides between barren farmlands and the cluttered suburban interiors of production designer Elizabeth J. Jones (Damsels in Distress).

But despite many well-executed sequences, Magic Valley is not quite the sum of its parts, and never builds into either a nail-biting investigation nor into a truly captivating mediation on life and death in America’s heartland. The film comes up particularly short when it comes TJ, who Zinn tracks around town on his skateboard à la Gus Van Sant, trying to turn him into sort of modern-day Raskolnikov racked by guilt. Yet TJ hardly utters a word, and although Gallner (A Nightmare on Elm Street) certainly looks the part, both his motivations and raison d’être remain more or less opaque.

Glenn delivers a solid performance as the chatty, none-too-serious town sheriff, while Henke (Me and You and Everyone We Know) is especially convincing as an earnest farmhand whose bad day is about to get much worse.

Venue: Rome Film Festival
Production companies: Prominent Pictures, Hazard Filmworks, Foxxtale Productions, in association with Besito Films, The Lucky Dogs, Iron Circle Pictures, Lovesick Pictures
Cast: Scott Glenn, Kyle Gallner, Alison Elliott, Brad William Henke, Matthew Gray Gubler, Will Estes
Director, screenwriter: Jaffe Zinn
Producer: Heather Rae
Executive producers: Paull Cho, Nina Foxx, Jeff Pies, Russell Friedenberg, Chris Nelson, David Kupferberg, Darren Grant, Erix Arocha
Director of photography: Sean Kirby
Production designer: Elizabeth J. Jones
Music: Mads Heldtberg, Steve Damstra II
Costume designer: Leah Butler
Editor: Jaffe Zinn
Sales Agent: Rezo
No rating, 84 minutes