DOWN IN THE VALLEY, which marks the feature directorial debut of director David
Jacobson (who also scripted), treads bravely into Sam Shepard territory. We first meet the
film's anti-hero Harlan Fairfax Carruthers (Edward Norton) as he is hitchhiking. Dressed in
jeans, boots and a white cowboy hat, he stands out against the backdrop of freeways, cars,
and billboards. I found the start of the movie interesting for this reason: there's a sort of
discomfort in Harlan's presence and the audience is left unsure exactly where the action of
film is unfolding. Is it a large city in Texas? Dallas? Houston? Maybe somewhere else?
Soon, it becomes clear that this is Southern California, and Harlan stands out against
the harried lifestyle. He's immensely polite, sometimes comes off as a rube, and pines
for the wide open spaces of South Dakota, from whence he came.

     Early in the film, Harlan crosses paths with October (Evan Rachel Wood), a
rebellious teenager with a strict corrections officer dad (David Morse) and a teenage
half-brother Lonnie (Rory Culkin) who seems perpetually afraid. (Lonnie has to sleep         
with the lights on and often asks to crash on the floor of his sister's room.) Heading to
the beach with some of her friends, October -- or Tobe, as she prefers -- languidly
sits in the rear of the car. She espies the hick pumping gas -- Harlan. There's a
weird, instant attraction. Although her friends make fun of Harlan and his "aw, shucks"
persona, Tobe sees something in him and invites him to join them at the beach. Thus
begins a rather strange coupling. After spending the day, they have sex at his motel room
with Tobe as the aggressor. After, Harlan decides he wants to do right and invites her
out on a proper date.

     Needless to say, Tobe's father Wade isn't too happy to see Harlan, not just because
he's clearly much older than his daughter. There's something about the stranger that he
finds suspicious. Tobe and Lonnie, though, are both taken in by the stranger and the
relationship builds. Up to this point, about halfway through the film, there is the makings of
a strong love story. Suddenly, though, Jacobson shifts gears and the action really becomes
Shepardian with hints of violence overlaying a mediation on the loss of the mythos of the Western.
I can say that there are a couple of plot twists that do shock -- but the 180-degree shift is
quite jarring. Looking back, there are hints in Norton's performance, but still it comes
as more of a ploy by the writer-director trying to shake things up than something germane
to the plot.

     What keeps the audience interest, though, are the performers. It seems that Morse
is becoming typecast in the role of the authoritarian figure with anger management issues.
Bruce Dern shows up in an ill-defined role. The best work is done by Culkin (who continues
to build an impressive resume), Wood (who is luminous) and Norton (who almost -- but
not quite makes the character's personality shift believable).

     
DOWN IN THE VALLEY clearly aspires to originality but Jacobson quotes from
so many famous Western films (too numerous to mention), falls into the occasional
cliché (when a gun appears on screen, the audience is primed to know that someone
is going to get shot), and loses command of the material (particularly in the last act)
that it ultimately doesn't work.


                     Rating:                   C
                     MPAA rating:        R for violence, sexual content, language and drug use
                     Running time:        114 mins.


                             Viewed at the Broadway Screening Room
Down in the Valley
©  2006 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.