Down in the Valley (2006)

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 05/19/06 00:19:04

"a.k.a. "Bronco Bickle"
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

A few weeks ago, I was talking with a couple of colleagues about the film “Hard Candy” and I admitted that I couldn’t quite recommend it because the final third went so wrong in so many ways that it pretty much undermined all the solid work that the filmmakers and actors had done during the first two-thirds. One of them asked me if I had seen “Down in the Valley” because he felt exactly the same way about that one that I did about “Hard Candy.” At the time, I hadn’t but I have now and I have to admit that he was 100% correct in his assertion that it goes disastrously wrong even more completely than “Hard Candy” did even at its worst moments. Watching “Down in the Valley,” I felt that the first two-thirds are so strong and sure that the only thing that could possibly screw it up is if suddenly came up with one of the silliest and most seriously confused final acts in recent film history–unfortunately, it proceeds to do just that and what could have been a great American film winds up just another steaming wreck on the “what were they thinking?” pile.

Edward Norton stars as Harlan, an odd young man who fancies himself a genuine cowboy–he even carries a lariat while riding the bus–who finds himself working at a gas station. Evan Rachel Wood is Tobe, a rebellious teen who finds herself strangely attracted to Harlan–partly because his excessively courtly manner is unlike anything she has ever encountered, even in the way he reaches out to her shy and withdrawn younger brother Lonnie (Rory Culkin), and partly because she knows it will annoy her overly strict and stern father (David Morse). Sure enough, Dad forbids her from seeing him, especially after a horseback riding expedition goes wrong, and she becomes even more drawn to him. However, even she gradually begins to realize, though not to the extent that we do, that there is something off about him and she tries to put some distance between the two of them for a period of time.

It is at this very point (and if you see it, you will know what I am talking about) that the film goes off the rails so completely and totally into a mess of pretentious symbolism--it is so desperate to underscore how Harlan has been blending fantasy and reality that one of the concluding scenes has him stumbling onto the set of what appears to be a remake of “My Darling Clementine” (where, of course, no one seems to notice him)–and poorly motivated character behavior (especially in the way that Lonnie finds himself remaining under Harlan’s spell long after all common sense would suggest otherwise) that you can’t believe that the same person responsible for the first two-thirds, writer-director David Jacobson, could have had anything to do with the final reels. What started off as a penetrating portrait of lonely souls reaching out to each other turns into what appears to be the answer to the unspoken question “What would happen if you decided to remake “Bronco Billy” and replaced Clint Eastwood with Travis Bickle?” Whether this is what Jacobson intended in the first place or whether it was the end result of what was reportedly a long post-production process (in which Norton himself apparently lent a hand in the editing room) I cannot say but the end result is so silly and unfocused that you’ll begin to wonder just how bad the original cut must have been if this version was considered to be an improvement.

This is especially a shame because the four lead actors are all really impressive. Wood, the impressive young star of “Thirteen” and “Pretty Persuasion,” is especially good, though I would gently suggest that she find herself a sunny and heedless comedy to appear in as soon as possible and Norton reconfirms that he can be one of the most electrifying actors working today when he is given worthwhile material to work with. In smaller roles, Culkin and Morse are both quite good as well–they both manage to find new ways of approaching what could have been stock characters. They are so good, in fact, that I am almost tempted to recommend seeing the film just so that you can enjoy their work but to do that, I would have to be able to willfully ignore the deeply flawed and deeply confused film that is surrounding them and that is an act that even the most forgiving critic is unlikely to be able to pull off with a straight face.

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