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Down in the Valley (2006)
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by Erik Childress

"It’s Getting To Be Re-Goddamn-Diculous!"
2 stars

The Western as allegory has been utilized to great effect in American film. From representing a lost idea as in the opening scenes of The Right Stuff to Near Dark’s outlaw vampires, the fundamentals of Old West theology are probably older than the timeline itself. It’s why the western will remain the only fully true American genre; continuing to inspire storytellers long after cowboy hats and spurs has been wiped from the planet. Writer/director David Jacobson wants to instill a feeling of the simpler (if still violent) times with Down in the Valley, but foregoes the mythos and passion resulting in a methodically paced, muddled examination of yet another potential burgeoning psycho on his resume of anti-heroes.

Evan Rachel Wood stars as Tobe (short for “October”; pronounce it sans “E”) who lives in the San Fernando Valley with her father, Wade (David Morse) and sullen stepbrother, Lonnie (Rory Culkin). On her way to the beach with friends they come across gas station attendant, Harlan Caruthers (Edward Norton), who approaches the job with the kind of gee whiz manners of a boyish ranch hand. While her friends ask him if he’s for real, Tobe curiously asks him to come along which he does at the cost of his job. An instant courtship begins, subjugated by Tobe, as they move from the beach to a hotel.

Normally any father would be happy to give away his daughter to someone presenting himself with the respectful mannerisms that Harlan displays, but Wade is more suspicious. Natural since Tobe is a minor (her true age is never determined) and this oddly polite dude is twice her age. Wade briefly keeps his distance (about seven minutes) until Tobe begins hanging out all night and getting in trouble when it appears Harlan may be keeping secrets or is mentally delusional in his role as a true-blue cowboy.

The first hour maintains our disposition. Wood is stuck in her post-Thirteen typecast as the rebellious teen, but Norton effortlessly holds the screen drawing us into a relationship that should instantly set off our suspect meter. The more we discover about Harlan though, the more unglued Jacobson’s story becomes. Leading off its second half with violence which has been telegraphed (but still hits us in the gut), Jacobson takes us on a journey which is more a less-realized version of Tommy Lee Jones’ far superior The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada than an ironic interpretation of modern old west discoveries and justice.

Jacobson’s exploration of the modern psychotic came to a head with the mediocre Dahmer and Harlan’s frolicking with double-fisted pistols in his hotel will invite obvious comparisons to Taxi Driver. The difference is that Travis Bickle was not only a product of trauma but became a self-prophesized reaction to what the world has become around him. Harlan’s childhood is glimpsed through voiceover letter-writing and may have regressed himself into a surrounding popularized in movies and television where he found tranquility, but Jacobson is incapable of making the connection. We understand where gunfights, lone sheriffs and parents protecting their homestead come from but there’s no meaning to how it’s presented. If the western motifs of horses and standoffs are evident, it isn’t countered with a context or attitude about the world of shopping malls and overpasses which surrounds it. Jacobson should be hitting a home run when a supposed fantasy sequence in which Harlan encounters a western setting - turns into a living, breathing movie set. Instead it’s an afterthought of a paradox that gives Jacobson a colorful finale instead of a deeper connotation of forgotten parables.

Down in the Valley strains credibility even beyond its flawed understanding of the material. One character makes a recovery in the span of seemingly only a few days that would make Tony Soprano envious and baffle Dr. Gregory House. Kidnapping and attempted murder also seems to be little more than a misdemeanor only worthy of the attention of Geoffrey Lewis and a friend played by John Diehl who materializes into the film more mysteriously than Eastwood’s High Plains Drifter. And the supposed snipping of Ellen Burstyn raises more questions than I’m sure Jacobson has the answers for. The version which premiered at Cannes last year ran 10 minutes longer than its current incarnation. How much of Harlan’s back story or John Diehl was actually cut is a mystery to me, but I guarantee it wouldn’t have been enough to salvage another film that the Old West is likely to outlive.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=14192&reviewer=198
originally posted: 05/19/06 00:05:28
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Independent Film Festival of Boston For more in the 2006 Independent Film Festival of Boston series, click here.

User Comments

3/16/11 art EVAN and NORTON were MARVELLOUS in this! 4 stars
1/05/07 cjkent norton never fails to fascinate, but themes are so familiar, they've become cliches 4 stars
11/21/06 Indrid Cold Harlan is an interesting character, but not enough to fill 110 minutes. 3 stars
10/04/06 Caiphn What a completely ridiculous ending! 3 stars
9/12/06 Bitchflaps Overstated drama that meanders increasingly heavy-handedly towards its silly conclusion. 2 stars
6/10/06 jcjs delicious, wonderful, sad, right on, Norton and cast so fine..loved it 5 stars
6/01/06 San Lamar it was ok 3 stars
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  05-May-2006 (R)
  DVD: 26-Sep-2006



Directed by
  David Jacobson

Written by
  David Jacobson

  Edward Norton
  Evan Rachel Wood
  David Morse
  Bruce Dern
  Rory Culkin
  Artel Kayaru

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