Written & Directed by: David Jacobson
The very first images in Down in the Valley are cartoon cowboys and airplanes—my, how the West has changed. You could call the film a Western, but there’s nothing Old or Wild about it. The film takes the Western mythologies that have been beaten into us through popular history and popular culture and deconstructs them by juxtaposing them within contemporary California, in the shape of Harlan Fairfax Carruthers (Edward Norton). This ain’t 1850’s Dodge, it’s the San Fernando Valley, ca. 2006; we see a wind-up Victrola in one room, but right behind it is a computer monitor. Less a Western, Down in the Valley is a metawestern.
A drifter qua gas station attendant, Harlan accepts a spontaneous invitation to the beach from Tob (Evan Rachel Wood), a pretty young girl who looks like she’s of legal age by about fifteen minutes. Once they start osculating in the deep end of the sea, it doesn’t seem as though they’ll ever be able to stop. Harlan is something of an anachronism—well mannered and naïve—introduced into the most thoroughly modern family (I don't think they're even all blood-related!): Wade, a distant, single father (a bulked-up David Morse), with a promiscuous teenage daughter and an awkward teenage son, Lonnie (Rory Culkin, who ever since the otherwise mediocre Igby Goes Down has established himself firmly in my heart as the greatest of the Culkin Bros.) Wade don’t take a liking to Harlan, not just because he’s a noticeably older fella, no matter how polite, banging his seventeen year-old daughter but because he proves to be a better father figure to his children than he.
In one scene Harlan takes Tob on a horseback ride to a gorgeous panoramic vista, demonstrating that the countryside, despite being polluted by pavement and powerlines, still has its glimmers of beauty; it suggests that the corrupted populations of modern society still have their bright spots, and though pa ain’t so sure, all the chill’un agree—this Harlan character's somethin’ else.
Soon enough, however, we’re let in on just how superficial beauty is; just as nature’s discernible pulchritude obscures its wild, irrational and unpredictable dangers, so too does a romanticization of the Old West’s punctilio and refreshing simplicity overlook its latent lingua franca, the six shooter.
Not only is Harlan old-fashioned but the film itself, as Scott Tobias has noted, is something of a throwback to the American cinema of the ‘70s, replete with an armed soliloquy-in-the-mirror homage to Taxi Driver. Edward Norton, who in a wonderful and complicated performance has one of the most natural on-screen orgasms I’ve ever seen, fills a role that, thirty years ago, would’ve been Nicholson’s. Though a little corny sometimes, as when Tob shouts to her father, “I love him! Why won’t you let me love him?” and a little too heavy on the montage at other times, overall the filmmaking is strong—scenes are well clipped so they don’t drag and the character’s emotions aren’t spelled-out when they don’t need to be. While conforming to some generic expectations, it confounds others: a shot of a lonely Harlan stuffing a donut-hole into a donut’s hole is genuinely sweet and funny; an episode in which Harlan is physically ejected from a synagogue by a gang of Hasidim is hilarious and surreal; and a metacinematic moment when Harlan and Lonnie stumble onto the set of a Western film in the midst of shooting approaches the profound.
Down in the Valley is far from a perfect film, but it’s smart and risky, a superbly-acted character drama, carried by Norton, that, unlike many of its indie counterparts, isn’t afraid to take chances, to try and be something more than a familiar love story. We’d be lucky is American cinema were pumping out more like it.