Tue 16 Dec 2014
DOWN IN THE VALLEY. Element Films, 2005. Edward Norton, Evan Rachel Wood, David Morse, Rory Culkin, Bruce Dern, John Diehl, Geoffrey Lewis, Elizabeth Peña, Kat Dennings. Screenplay and Director: David Jacobson.
To call Down In The Valley a contemporary Western doesn’t really do it justice. It’s a daring movie, one that both conforms to, and subverts the Western genre, all the while pretending to be a love story between a drifter and a bored, rebellious suburban teenage girl. In that sense, it mocks the audience, playing with the expectation that this is going to be just another misbegotten romance.
Sometimes the effort works extraordinarily well; others times it falls flat. Pancake flat, leaving the viewer wondering whether it was worth the time. And I grant you this: the movie doesn’t always make perfect sense. It certainly won’t appeal to all tastes.
But with beautiful cinematography, terrific acting by Ed Norton and Evan Rachel Wood, and a poignant reminder that those who stay true to the mores of the Old West simply can’t function in the contemporary West, Down In The Valley remains an overall thoughtful, if imperfect, story about the perils of taking escapism and national mythology a step too far.
Ed Norton portrays Harlan Fairfax Carruthers, a drifter working at a San Fernando Valley gas station. He says he’s got a background in ranching, is from South Dakota, and speaks with a drawl. And he says he doesn’t drive a car.
It doesn’t take much for the restless Tobe (Evan Rachel Wood) to fall for the mysterious stranger, who also takes a shine to her younger brother, Lonnie (Rory Culkin). The siblings’ stepfather (David Morse) however, doesn’t much care for Harlan. White trash loser, or something like that, is what he calls him.
Harlan’s a complicated character and we never really learn exactly who he is, or who he is supposed to be. But one thing is clear: he’s from modern suburban Los Angeles. He is definitely not a gunslinger from the Old West. Tragically, however, that is what he imagines himself to be. I say tragically, because Harlan’s flight out of reality, and into a celluloid daydream, ushers in a wave of violence and tragedy for the people with whom he comes into contact.
Norton is exceptional in his role, portrays the dangerously unstable Harlan so convincingly that one cannot imagine another actor playing this bizarre character, a man so fundamentally broken by the modern world that he chooses to live out his life as if he belonged in a dusty 1880s street, rather than in a 1970s gas station. He’s an outlaw gunslinger in a realm of jam-packed freeways, strip malls, and dingy motels.
Let me repeat: Down In the Valley doesn’t always work. For example, it sometimes makes far too much use of symbolism and metaphor when subtlety would have done the trick. Sometimes too much pop psychology isn’t good for a movie and grates on the nerves.
The movie definitely has a message, although it’s not exactly clear what it is. That the Old West was, at root, a violent society and that we shouldn’t miss its passing? That suburbanization results in alienation from nature? That society will always have drifters who pose a menace to the community?
Thankfully, the movie eschews a happy, tidy ending where everything is set aright. It leaves the viewer with a somewhat disconcerting vision of the ability of one man, one psychologically bruised, lonesome gun toting drifter, to wreak so much havoc on an already dysfunctional family. At times clichéd, others poignant, Down In The Valley is a romance, neo-noir, and Western wrapped in a character study. It’s certainly worth a look. Just don’t go into it expecting a totally coherent, flawless narrative.