Down in the Valley
2006Director: David Jacobson
Cast: Edward Norton, Evan Rachel Wood, David Morse
alking to NPR about his role as out-of-place modern cowboy Harlan Carruthers in Down in the Valley, the actor Edward Norton commented that “modern life entombs us and drives us to seek ways to start over.”
Starting over is central to the myth of the Western, of course, and never far below the surface of any American story of reinvention—so powerful that it almost makes films like Malick’s The New World prequels. Norton, also a producer for this film, reportedly spent many hours with writer-director David Jacobson watching classic Westerns. So his Harlan undergoes a kind of deranged hyper-reinvention that is about taking the Western in the wrong way.
Claiming he’s just arrived in L.A. from South Dakota, the 30-ish Harlan takes up with 15-year-old Tobe (Evan Rachel Wood). When she invites him to the beach, he quits his job to go. Soon he’ll lose his lodging and the remnants of his shaky, patched-together self over her too. Tobe has Harlan’s pants off as soon as she gets inside his seedy kitchenette. If Harlan is a time-bomb, Tobe is a handful. In one scene she throws a tantrum that requires her sheriff’s officer father, Wade (David Morse), to restrain her, reminiscent of the harrowing climactic scene in Wood’s 2003 breakout film Thirteen. But Harlan’s stories crumble, as Wade is sure they will, and Tobe pulls back from him on her own. Not soon enough: Harlan shoots her in an impulse terrifying for its very brevity and takes off with her little brother Lonnie into the hills. Wade pursues them on horseback to a bloody showdown.
Well, unsurprisingly Harlan isn’t from South Dakota. He’s from just down the coast—Dan something, an identity so insubstantial that we barely catch his name or the town he’s really from. In this light, that he’s never been to the beach until Tobe takes him suggests the dreary confines of a life he’s tried to leave.
Despite the easy reference to Scorcese’s Taxi Driver—both Harlan and Travis Bickle practice their fast-draw with Colt .45’s in front of a mirror—the setting here is distinctly West coast, and the tone cinematically older that 1970’s disaffection. Harlan reminds more of Lee Marvin’s portrayals of young punks in Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and Budd Boetticher’s recently resurrected Seven Men From Now. Despite his capacity for belligerence, Harlan’s painstaking practice is about finding someplace to fit in. Harlan would like to be part of Tobe’s family, with a father who plays guitar and a little brother he could teach stuff to. When Tobe refuses to run off with him, Harlan quickly takes Lonnie instead, and it’s almost a more fitting match.
Down in the Valley also presents another version of modern life’s “entombment” than the closed walls, dark hallways, and dead-end alleys of New York City—a softer, deceptively open version. The first sound we hear is the whiz of traffic on the San Fernando Valley freeway. Jacobson puts Harlan, Tobe, and Lonnie near these freeways right away, where they can see those round, brown California hills and that large California sky through the mesh fences and the netting of overhead wires. This is urban sprawl so rapid and haphazard that it’s left scraps of land like the ridges above the freeway and the tiny pocket beyond where old Charley (Bruce Dern) keeps a few horses. The freeways provide the illusion that you’re going somewhere, that you could get away—a constant provocation to the restless. Of course our cowpoke’s job is pumping gas, and of course Harlan and Tobe first glimpse is of one another through a car window—which for many Americans doubles as a sort of portable, street-level movie screen.
Down in the Valley boasts always competent, sometimes excellent acting. As Tobe (“short for October”), Evan Rachel Wood is convincing both losing her head and coming back to her senses. She has three films opening in the next year, including the screen version of Augustin Burroughs' Running With Scissors, and this movie is reason to anticipate any future work she does. After years mired in TV type-casting and mostly forgettable films, David Morse deserves good character roles like this more often. Rory Culkin gives a finely directed, restrained performance as the watchful, susceptible little brother, Lonnie. Jacobson has fashioned particularly queasy possibilities for this youngest character. After target practice with Harlan, Lonnie could easily shoot someone. And in Harlan’s coaching in overcoming fear of the dark, we glimpse how the bond between John Muhammad and a younger John Lee Malvo might produce the DC snipers.
Edward Norton’s Harlan is remarkable. He’s famously made his bread and butter since Primal Fear out of playing roles as much about performance itself as other aspects of character motivation. From their collaboration Jacobson has tailored his plot so that the film’s action follows and enlarges this by-now resonant side to Norton’s own work and so makes it the film’s heart. Just as Harlan is not what he claims, Down in the Valley’s plot works as a series of junctures at which we don’t know if what we see is what we get. We often share this uncertainty with those on-screen. When old Charley accuses Harlan of stealing the white horse, we wonder along with Tobe whether Charley’s playing a joke or off his medication. When Harlan shoots Tobe and later himself, the camera abruptly cuts away each time. When Harlan and Lonnie stumble onto a Western film set at dawn, Harlan’s eyes wide with wonder—for a disorienting moment, maybe this is, who knows, a dream sequence?
Mostly Jacobson succeeds with—and survives, perhaps—these swerves into uncertainty; this film is far more engaging emotionally than its obvious recent mate, Wim Wenders’ disappointing Don’t Come Knocking. There is a trace of unwieldiness here, as when a singer’s voice isn’t quite under control. And Down in the Valley presents conventions from the Western movie in pretty distilled form. Both Harlan and Wade resort to guns. Harlan’s a man on a white horse. When he hides it in the garage of a tract house, the horse tries to kick its way out, and so on. Yes, clunky. But part of what I like about that hokey movie set that the characters pass through is the dimension it adds to the housing tract construction site—Americans are still building sets upon which to enact modern life, still practicing so we look right.
Down in the Valley is now playing in theaters across the United States.