“Deep Dark Canyon” opens with a pair of brothers, Nate and Skylar Towne, hunting a deer. One of them takes a shot and they pursue the wounded buck. As they pause near a log, Nate says he can see the animal; he tells his younger brother to take the kill shot as a birthday present. Skylar defers. Nate shoots.
They approach their quarry and discover the body of the town mayor, Dick Cavanaugh. While being interviewed by sheriff Bloom Towne, who’s their father, Skylar says he fired the fatal shot, assuming he won’t get in as much trouble as Nate would, because he’s a minor. The guilt grows in Nate, however, because the Cavanaugh family is a powerful one that owns most of the businesses in Guerneville, a small town nestled in rural northwestern California. He doesn’t trust that his brother will get fair treatment.
Nate decides to help his brother escape, which leads to the death of two deputies. The Cavanaugh family, already suspicious that Bloom will help his two sons avoid punishment, mobilizes its members and orders them to shoot to kill. Bloom joins the chase, hoping to find his sons before the Cavanaughs do. We soon learn that the Towne family could have a personal reason for wanting the death of Dick Cavanaugh. The tension escalates.
The storyline unfolds at a measured pace through the second and third acts, knowing when to ratchet up the action and when to give us a chance to catch our breath. Like any good film, “Deep Dark Canyon” puts its main characters through hell: Nate and Skylar spend much of the movie connected by a pair of handcuffs, and every time they escape the Cavanaughs, it feels plausible because it only keeps them a few steps ahead of their pursuers. Sure, the Cavanaughs become terrible shots every time they close in on the brothers, even when their targets are stationary, but that’s par for the course in this kind of movie; I can’t fault “Deep Dark Canyon” for that.
The story is also smart about giving the brothers things that can help them without those scenes turning into deus ex machina moments. For example, they invade a house looking for food and Nate grabs a woman’s cell phone, but he uses it arrange a rendezvous that becomes an ambush. Nate gets his hands on a gun that quickly runs out of ammo. Opportunities to sever the handcuffs repeatedly fail (it couldn’t have been easy for the actors to run through the woods while cuffed together).
Some might take exception with the ending, but anyone who does misses the film’s point: it’s about the Towne family coming together and facing anything the Cavanaughs throw at them, regardless of the consequences. Whatever happens after the film fades out is irrelevant. It reminded me a bit of another controversial ending, the one to “The Sopranos”: the whole point of that series was whether or not Tony would keep his two families together — he succeeds, so any threat posed by the guy in the Members Only jacket was irrelevant.
All of the cast members in “Deep Dark Canyon” are seasoned professionals, even if they’re not household names, and they all turn in solid performances that keep the movie grounded in reality. Ted Levine (Bloom) was Buffalo Bill in “The Silence of the Lambs,” and he played a major role on the TV series “Monk.” Spencer Treat Clark (Nate), Nick Eversman (Skylar), Michael Bown (mob leader Randy Cavanaugh) and Martin Starr (Bloom’s main deputy, Lloyd Cavanaugh) have played a variety of roles on TV and on film. Justine Bateman shows up in a couple scenes as diner waitress Cheryl Cavanaugh.
The cinematography and music establish the film’s mood as a small town coming-of-age tale, with the idyllic landscape shots and whimsical music providing a counterpoint to the deadly serious action. Think your teenage years were tough? Imagine being charged with murder on your birthday and ending up on the run from a lynch mob.