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Dig it: 'Valley of Bones' rolls out North Dakota noir

Autumn Reeser stars as Anna, a driven paleontologist with a dark past in "Valley of Bones." Special to The Forum1 / 2
McCoy (Streven Molony) and Nate (Rhys Coiro) work on a dinosaur dig in "Valley of Bones." Special to The Forum2 / 2

The tagline for the new North Dakota-based thriller, "Valley of Bones," is "Some things are better left buried." The filmmakers — many with Fargo ties — did well to unearth an impressive story framed by family ties and personal history, but fall just a little short with the finishing touches.

The independent feature-length film is mostly shot in western North Dakota and does a great job using the landscape and the oil boom atmosphere as a potent backdrop.

Opening in 300 screens nationwide today, it creates a North Dakota noir that has been waiting since the Bakken started buzzing.

Autumn Reeser (TV's "The O.C." and "Entourage") plays Anna, a paleontologist dead set on digging up dinosaur bones but just as intent at ignoring the skeletons in her own closet. She has a strained relationship with her young son, Ezekiel, (Mason Mahay) so when she hears about a possible tyrannosaurus rex find in the Badlands, she brings the boy to the big dig. Her plan may bring them closer, but it ultimately puts the child in danger repeatedly.

Anna is meant to be a strong female character, but the real magnetic female personality is the driven ranch owner Kimberly (Alexandra Billings, from "Transparent"). Surrounded by characters with exposed backstories, hers was only hinted at, but unfortunately not fully revealed.

The chief foil is the shady drug addict McCoy (Fargo native Steven Molony), who also has a strained relationship with his own child and a dark past that comes back to haunt him. Molony is convincing as the desperate junkie with a mean streak, a possible heart of gold and for most of the movie, a face splattered in blood. Molony keeps you guessing whether McCoy will do the right or the wrong thing, but he goes a bit overboard during the dramatic peak, and that's where the movie sputters.

Michael Alden Lloyd's cinematography and the original score by Michael Kramer and Corey Wallace lay a brooding trail leading up to that point, and just when you expect the action to bubble over and erupt, it gets bogged down and just kind of sinks away. It's a shame because the movie has so much potential.

One particular nitpick: Why do all of the characters use flip phones?

Still, there are plenty of things to enjoy. It's so well shot, you half expect to see North Dakota's favorite son, Josh Duhamel, walking over the next butte. The producers, however, don't have North Dakota Tourism's bankroll for casting.

The filmmakers haven't revealed exactly what the budget for "Valley" was, though they stress it was low budget, suggesting it was made for less than $5 million. Director/editor Dan Glaser (another Fargo native) and Lloyd wring the most out of every penny to make the production look like it had five times the payroll.

It's a strong step forward for Glaser and Molony, who wrote most of the script based on a story by Fargo's Jon Wanzek. The trio have discussed plans to make another North Dakota movie and "Valley of Bones" provides a good foundation for other stories to be told.

The Badlands can produce good movies. This may not be the best, but it's a good start.

Rated R for violence, drug use, language and some nudity.