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Overall Rating
3.1

Awesome: 3.23%
Worth A Look45.16%
Average: 9.68%
Pretty Bad: 41.94%
Total Crap: 0%

4 reviews, 7 user ratings


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Down in the Valley (2006)
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by PaulBryant

"The cinema cowboy resurrected in La-La Land."
4 stars

I have a theory about Harlan Carruthers, the character Ed Norton plays in David Jacobson’s Down in the Valley. I think his bloodline can be traced back to John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards character from John Ford’s The Searchers, and that, somewhere along the way, that particular lineage intermarried with Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle. It’s just a theory, and one that obviously cannot be proved, and since my name isn’t Dan Brown I don’t plan on penning a piss-poor, 400-plus page novel around its strange premises. I’ll stick to a (hopefully) not piss-poor review which explains just what writer/director David Jacobson has done in Down in the Valley to get me thinking about all this.

The interesting thing about Down in the Valley is that it begins as a corny teen romance comedy about an underage girl named Tobe (Evan Rachel Wood), who falls in love with an older gas station attendant named Harlan, but then slowly spirals together a barefaced allegory of classic Westerns with the more recent American movie conception: the psychological study of an insane anti-hero. Harlan appears to be an honest-to-goodness cowboy fresh out of ranch life in South Dakota, so naturally, to the rebellious but sensitive Tobe, he’s a diamond in the rough. (That rough, of course, being the nest of immoral inhumanity that is Los Angeles.)

He pumps her gas at the Mohawk he works at and then comes along with Tobe and her friends to the beach, ecstatic that he’s found a girl nice enough to quit his job for. They laugh, play, splash, and so forth, and eventually end up sharing a quick, sweaty fuck in Harlan’s apartment. Such an old-fashioned aw-shuckser is Harlan, however, that he blandly declares, post-orgasm: “This ain’t a proper way to meet.”

Thus, the next logical step in courtin’ a young lass like Tobe is to introduce oneself to the girl’s father, in this case a smokestack-like foster dad named Wade (played superbly by David Morse). The age difference being obvious to seemingly everyone except Harlan, this humble, hats-off, state-his-honorable-intentions hello doesn’t convince a corrections officer like Wade that Harlan is foster-son-in-law material. Consequently, Tobe must see her cowboy more or less in secret, and theirs seems to quickly become a basic love-in-the-face-of-parental-adversity romance.

Tobe’s infatuation is understandable. She’s not only in love with an older man, but with a man from what she thinks is a non-existent place and time. A cowboy? Really? From an actual ranch? Her first words to him are indicative of this allure: “Are you for real?” she asks. That question sets up the first act of the movie, which details how her head falls swiftly over her heels, but it is his response that forecasts the remainder of Down in the Valley, as he honestly and irresolutely concludes: “I think so…”

Jacobson’s waits to give us the scene that first makes us wonder whether Harlan is in fact real or not, and whether or not Harlan knows what “real” is. Alone in his hotel room, we see Harlan without Tobe for the first time, and he play-acts a ridiculous phony shootout complete with real guns and Old West aphorisms. He looks like a child, banished to his room and forced to use his imagination to amuse himself. It is the scene where I first thought the movie had gotten things all wrong. No real cowboy would do this shit. But then I realized that either Jacobsen had gotten real cowboys all wrong, or Harlan was not the man he appeared to be. It’s the turning point of the movie – coming well before he points a gun at his reflection in the mirror and channels the ghost of Travis Bickle – where we suddenly realize we’re not in for anymore teen romance, but rather that we’re dealing with man who wears such conflicting facades that he can’t tell where the man’s-gotta-do mask of Ethan Edwards begins and where the broiling-obsession-and-frustration mask of Travis Bickle begins.

From here the rest of the film is tensed with the possibility of violence. Harlan takes Tobe’s younger brother, Lonnie (Rory Culkin) – whom he calls “twig”, perhaps signaling the next branch on the gun-toting family tree – out to the concrete riverbed in L.A. to teach him how to shoot beer bottles. As they blast off with their pistols, the gunshots echo around them, each shot with a dozen reverberations. They are echoes from the past. From the “family values”-driven Ethan Edwards of the mythic Old West; from the displaced, urban lost souls that came to an identity-less head with Travis Bickle. But they are also projections into the future. Warning shots not only of a violent end to the movie, but of a history of violence that will continue to manifest itself in America as long as there are men around who dream like Harlan Carruthers.

As the movie grows progressively more allegorical, Harlan becomes a character with so many contradictions and inconsistencies that is hard to believe him as anything but a fictional avatar. Many critics and moviegoers are apt to take issue with that, but personally I’m alright with it. I’m aware that some of the things he does are completely irrational and that some of the situations he finds himself in only ever happen in the movies. To me, that seems the whole point. This is a man who knows about being a cowboy (and, indeed, being a person) not from being brought up as one, but through movies about heroic gunslingers and self-righteous loners wandering the vast landscapes of the “untamed” West. He doesn’t know who he is or if he’s real, he only knows what kind of reality he wishes he was living in. The movie is about the dangerously great lengths Harlan is willing to go to in order to construct that reality.

It may be the most subtle joke of the movie that Harlan ends up having to steal his literal and metaphorical “white horse” from a man he doesn’t know in order to take Tobe on a romantic ride up in the hills above the San Fernando Valley. The irony of it is that the man from whom he steals the horse is a semi-crazy, white-haired rancher named Charlie, who happens to be played by one of the finest latter-day Western movie actors, Bruce Dern. Dern, of course, holds the dubious distinction of being one of the only men in cinema history to kill the immortal John Wayne, and when you see how his character is handled in Down in the Valley, you’ll understand what David Jacobson has to say about the many deaths and resurrections of the American cowboy.

link directly to this review at https://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=14192&reviewer=364
originally posted: 05/27/06 08:57:45
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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

3/17/11 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
11/22/06 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
9/13/06 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
6/02/06 San Lamar it was ok 3 stars
IF YOU'VE SEEN THIS FILM, RATE IT!
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USA
  05-May-2006 (R)
  DVD: 26-Sep-2006

UK
  N/A

Australia
  N/A


Directed by
  David Jacobson

Written by
  David Jacobson

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



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