Following two striking, but little-seen low-budget features, writer-director David Jacobson paints on a larger canvas for "Down in the Valley." Result is imperfect and overlong, but hugely ambitious and often breathtaking. The story of a charismatic stranger's encounter with a suburban family is transformed into a contemplation of myths of the American West and the dangerous pull of movie illusion.

Following two striking, but little-seen low-budget features, writer-director David Jacobson paints on a larger canvas for “Down in the Valley.” Result is imperfect and overlong, but hugely ambitious and often breathtaking. The story of a charismatic stranger’s encounter with a suburban family is transformed into a contemplation of myths of the American West and the dangerous pull of movie illusion. Downbeat tone and stream-of-consciousness narrative feel circa 1975 and signal a tough road commercially in 2005. “Down” should garner attention, however, for its gallery of outstanding performances (led by star-producer Edward Norton) and the original vision of its prodigiously talented maker.

The “Valley” of pic’s title is none other than Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley, favored location of that other 1970s nostalgist, Paul Thomas Anderson. “Valley,” though, has its strongest roots in Jacobson’s own earlier films (“Criminal,” “Dahmer”) and their disturbingly intimate portraits of individuals unable to function within the parameters of “normal” society.

Decked out in weathered Stetson, snap-button shirt and dusted-up blue jeans, Harlan Caruthers (Norton) seems as anomalous a figure as he tends to the pumps at a Valley service station. When comely 18-year-old Tobe (Evan Rachel Wood) stops for gas en route to the beach with some friends, she and Harlan make an instant connection — so much so that she impulsively invites him along for the ride and he, though it means losing his job, agrees to come.

From there, a star-crossed romance develops, much to the consternation of Tobe’s sheriff father, Wade (David Morse), who doesn’t buy an inch of Harlan’s aw-shucks demeanor or a word of his claim to being a former ranch hand newly arrived from South Dakota.

First indication that Wade may be justified in his suspicions comes when Harlan treats Tobe to a romantic horseback ride on a horse he claims to be borrowing from his friend Charlie (Bruce Dern), only for Charlie to call the police and report the animal stolen before their return. Later, we see Harlan acting out the part of a movie cowboy (complete with two single-action Colt .45s) in front of his motel room mirror — actions pitched somewhere between innocuous childhood role-playing and Travis Bickel-esque delusion.

But it’s only when Harlan treats Tobe’s timid younger brother, Lonnie (Rory Culkin), to some impromptu shooting lessons that the love struck young woman begins to question the responsibility of Harlan’s actions.

Of course, it’s no surprise that Harlan turns out to be something other than what meets the eye, but, as in “Dahmer,” Jacobson is less interested in labeling what his protagonist is than in understanding how and why he came to be who he is.

In “Down in the Valley,” that investigation yields a complex consideration of the cowboy as nonconformist archetype and the enduring appeal of the gunslinger fantasy in an age when the wide-open spaces of the West have been eaten away by strip malls and tract-house developments.

First hour makes for especially riveting viewing, thanks to the cool confidence of Jacobson’s direction and story’s unpredictability. In a role that capitalizes on his chameleonic gifts, Norton is superb, projecting some of the lazy sexuality of the young Jeff Bridges in the early courtship scenes and, later, a volatile menace worthy of his own Oscar-nominated turns in “Primal Fear” and “American History X.”

Wood is likewise excellent at capturing Tobe’s mix of seductive young womanhood and girlish vulnerability. To Jacobson’s credit, there’s nothing lurid or exploitative about their scenes together, despite the dramatic age difference between the two thesps.

Pic bogs down in its midsection (which could use tightening), including one overly lengthy sequence detailing Harlan’s past. And as it enters its final stretch, pic suffers from the obvious payoffs of a few too many Chekovian plants where handguns are concerned, with one character’s recovery from a seemingly fatal gunshot wound likely to strike some as a stretch of pic’s credibility (though no more so than Barbara Stanwyck’s similarly miraculous comeback at the end of “Forty Guns”).

Jacobson gets back on track for the finale where “Down in the Valley” reaches its darkly mysterious peak.

Shooting in true anamorphic widescreen with d.p. Enrique Chediak, Jacobson constantly evokes the tension between pic’s Western and urban elements: a horseback ride alongside the L.A. river basin; freeway headlights shimmering the way stars once did. There also are direct visual homages to two of Jacobson’s acknowledged influences, Howard Hawks’ “Red River” and John Ford’s “My Darling Clementine.”

Despite appearing in the end credits cast list of print screened in Cannes, actress Ellen Burstyn is nowhere to be found in the finished film.

Down in the Valley

Production

An Element Films presentation of a Holly Wiersma/Element Films production. (International sales: I.S. Film Distribution, Santa Monica.) Produced by Holly Wiersma, Edward Norton, Adam Rosenfelt. Executive producers, Sam Nazarian, Stavros Merjos. Co-producers, Bill Migliore, Marc Schaberg, Mike Upton, Joe Ginier. Directed, written by David Jacobson.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color, Panavision widescreen), Enrique Chediak; editors, Lynzee Klingman, Michael Hofacre; music supervisors, Matt Aberly, Jay Faires; production designer, Franco Carbone; art director, Michael Atwell; costume designer, Jacqueline West; sound (Dolby Digital), Steve Morrow; sound designer, Scott Sanders; assistant directors, Dave Halls, Chad Rosen; second unit camera, Wolfgang Held. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard), May 13, 2005. (Also in Los Angeles Film Festival -- opening night.) Running time: 125 MIN.

With

Harlan - Edward Norton Tobe - Evan Rachel Wood Wade - David Morse Lonnie - Rory Culkin Steve - John Diehl April - Kat Dennings Kris - Hunter Parrish Sherri - Aviva Jeremy - Aaron Fors Charlie - Bruce Dern Bill Sr. - Muse Watson Shell - Heather Ashleigh Sheridan - Geoffrey Lewis

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