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  • 15
  • Drama, Romance
  • 2005
  • 125 mins

Down In The Valley

Down In The Valley

Synopsis

David Jacobson revisits old American myths with this modern western starring Edward Norton as a cowboy in the wrong place at the wrong time

About

It may be shot in expansive anamorphic widescreen, and feature an outlaw gunning for mythic glory, but David Jacobson's latest feature unfolds not in Monument Valley like so many Hollywood horse operas, but in California's present-day San Fernando Valley, with its 12-lane freeways and suburban sprawl.

When aimless, alienated high school senior Tobe Sommers (Wood) meets a softly spoken stranger in a Stetson who goes by the name of Harlan Fairfax Carruthers (Norton), she is immediately attracted to his quaint otherworldliness and courteous charm. Her insecure younger brother Lonnie (Culkin) is also quick to fall under Harlan's spell, seeing in him a gentler, more understanding alternative to his own stepfather Wade (Morse), a single parent who lays down the law in the Sommers' household. Wade has little trust in Tobe's new boyfriend, having encountered Harlan's type before in his work as a corrections officer; and as Harlan's behaviour becomes more deceitful, divisive and deranged, a final showdown between the two men becomes unavoidable.

Down In The Valley is the ideal project for Jacobson, who has already shown his affinity for marginalized, outlaw figures in Criminal (1994) and Dahmer (2002). His Harlan - part rootless romantic, part self-reliant individualist, part gun-toting fantasist, part self-appointed hero, part deluded psychotic - is the embodiment of the American Dream in all its schizophrenic contradictions; and by serving all at once as critique of, homage to, and requiem for, the nostalgic values that Harlan tries to uphold, Jacobson's film dramatises the powerful hold that the cowboy myth continues to exercise, both as a genre and as a wider ideology, over the modern American psyche.

Down In The Valley is also a throwback to the golden age of 1970s cinema, when heroes were anti-heroes, messages were mixed, and character was king. Norton puts in an assured performance, managing to retain the viewer's sympathy even as his suburban cowboy rides out from his initially sweet romance with Tobe to the darker filmic territories of Taxi Driver (1976) and Dear Wendy (2005).

Morse gives depth to the potentially thankless role of the Valley's macho 'sheriff', who, with his Darwinian theories regarding the meek, at first seems as dangerous as Harlan turns out to be. Wood is excellent as the adolescent rebel who knows which lines are not to be crossed; while Culkin, as the sensitive Lonnie forced to choose between two would-be fathers, proves to be one of the most promising actors of his generation. Meanwhile, in a throwaway part, Bruce Dern seems there simply to stamp the film with his grizzly 1970s footprint.

By the end, as Harlan stumbles onto a film set and finds himself surrounded by folk in period costume enjoying a hoedown right out of John Ford's My Darling Clementine (1946), the careful balance between oater fantasy and Californian reality may, for some, have stepped over onto the wrong side of contrived. But up until that point, Jacobson has crafted a poignant misfit western, full of narrative twists as mercurial as its doomed protagonist.

Cast & Connections

  • Actor: David Morse, Edward Norton, Bruce Dern, Rory Culkin, Evan Rachel Wood
  • Director: David Jacobson
  • Screen Writer: David Jacobson
  • Producer: Stavros Merjos, Edward Norton, Holly Wiersma, Scott M Rosenfelt
  • Photographer: Enrique Chediak
  • Composer: Peter Salett

In a nutshell

The values of past and present collide in this beautifully shot, finely acted reexamination of the American Dream.

by Anton Bitel

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