Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Hey, the title of this movie is a double entendre!

Down in the Valley, directed by David Jacobson, 2006

For a while there, Edward Norton was one of my favorite actors, but he hasn’t done much of note in recent years. It seemed like the last thing of interest that he did was The 25th Hour back in 2002 (although I was pleased to find out that he was the masked king in Kingdom of Heaven, a character that I found to be one of the highlights of a tepid movie). So it’s great to see him back in full force in Down in the Valley, which came out earlier this year. The film is an interesting one, attempting to combine a sort of modern take on the western with the “disaffected youth in suburbia” genre.

I was wondering where the movie was going in the first 15 minutes or so. It starts off kind of slow, with scenes of two teenage siblings wandering around their neighborhood in the titular San Fernando Valley. The girl, Tobe (short for October), is played by Evan Rachel Wood, a very talented young actress (she was great in the satirical Pretty Persuasion). Her 13-year-old brother Lonnie is played by Rory Culkin, of the highly revered Culkin family. They seem to be experiencing some of the typical ennui of youth, although they get along well, seeming to have a close relationship. She teaches him to spit (smoking helps), and they wait around for their dad (David Morse, of “oh yeah, that guy” fame) to come home. Then on spring break Tobe takes a trip to the beach with her friends. Along the way they stop for gas, and the station attendant is this goofy-looking guy dressed in jeans and a cowboy hat (Edward Norton, of course). Tobe’s friends laugh and make fun of him, calling him “Tex”, but Tobe seems pretty interested in him and invites him to come to the beach with them. He agrees, even though it means losing his job. They seem to get along well; after interrogation from her friends, she finds out his name is Harlan and he’s from South Dakota, where he used to work on a ranch. After a fun time at the beach, Tobe basically seduces him, and they fall into a torrid relationship, seemingly unable to get enough of each other. Harlan seems like a nice enough guy; he treats Tobe well, buying her a pretty dress, and he respects Lonnie, talking to him in a non-condescending way and treating him like an equal. Something seems strange about him, especially when he can’t really answer why he is living in the San Fernando Valley, so far away from any of the ranches that he claims to have worked on. Wade, the kids’ father, seems especially leery of him (by the way, I’m not sure what age Norton is supposed to be playing, but his character has to be a good ten years older than Wood’s. In real life, he’s 38 and she’s 19, which is quite a gap.), but Tobe is obviously smitten, and he’s not close enough to her to really talk about it.

Things start to get especially weird with Harlan when he takes her out for a horseback ride and a picnic in the country. Upon returning the horse, the owner greets them with a shotgun, claiming they stole it. Harlan claims he knows the guy and had permission, but the guy is adamant that he’s never seen him before. The cops show up to intervene, and Tobe’s father is called to pick her and Harlan up. As you can imagine, he’s not very happy about it. Harlan claims it’s all a misunderstanding and that the owner (who, admittedly, is a bit elderly) has gone off his medication. This is the first real sign that something is not quite right with Harlan. He seems to fill the cowboy role well; his posture and manner of speaking definitely fit the down-home country type. But is he really what he says he is, or is he just a crazy guy living out a fantasy? We see him in his apartment, acting out scenes from westerns. This seems kind of strange, but is it just harmless acting, or is he losing his mind? It doesn’t help that he’s waving around a couple of real six-shooters. After the corral incident, Wade tries to forbid Tobe from seeing Harlan, but being a teenage girl she freaks out, punches him, slams doors, breaks windows, and says she hates him. Lonnie also doesn’t want to see him go, since he seems to be the only person who treats him like an adult. Harlan doesn’t help things when he shows up a few days later, and since Tobe isn’t there, he takes Lonnie out for some target practice, demonstrating to him the art of the quick draw. As you can imagine, this doesn’t go over well with Wade.

We eventually find out the truth about Harlan, but I don’t want to spoil it here. I will say that he’s the kind of person that has an idea about how things should go, and can be dangerous when reality doesn’t match up to his ideas. He tries to get Tobe to run away with him, saying they will eventually send for Lonnie. She loves him, but by this point even she is starting to see that something is not right with him, and she’s put in a dilemma that can’t turn out well for anybody.

The actors are all great in their roles. Norton especially makes you fall for him at the beginning of the story, but see how messed up he is by the end. He’s very charming, and he has the country-boy persona down to a T. Wood is also great; as in Pretty Persuasion (the only other movie of hers that I’ve seen, but I imagine she plays a similar role in Thirteen), she’s a very sexual being, and you can see why Norton would be attracted to her to the point of obsession. Culkin does well as the shy kid who nobody pays much attention to, and he makes the naiveté that causes him to site with Harlan believable. And David Morse, veteran character actor that he is, is very good as the semi-absent father who just wants what’s best for his kids. He’s definitely not the perfect father, sometimes getting a little violent, but it’s obvious that he loves his kids and can tell that Harlan is not good for them. I probably feel for him the most, since he can’t help but come off as a bad guy to them even though he’s just trying to help. I don’t think many other actors would have been able to pull it off; most would have just made the character into an abusive asshole.

Director David Jacobson does a really good job with his own script. He’s a relative newcomer; the only other notable film he’s done is Dahmer, which I believe was a straight-to-DVD thriller about the serial killer. This film is obviously very personal, and it is based in part on his experiences as a child growing up in the San Fernando Valley. He uses the locations well; there are scenes in locations that look like fields in the country but turn out to be in the middle of a sea of highways, billboards, strip malls, and gas stations. It’s also shot very well; we often see beautiful expressive views of the Valley that almost make it look natural. He says in a Q&A feature on the DVD that he was trying to evoke the spirit of old westerns, especially the sense of loneliness that characters in those films feel, and he was also trying to relate that to modern suburban life. I think he succeeds very well. There are also some good touches; I particularly liked a scene in which Norton and another character wander into what appears to be an old west town, with people milling about in western garb and even square dancing. It turns out to be the set of a movie that is filming, but for a couple minutes it is very surreal, and I was even starting to think that it might all be playing out in Norton’s mind. Very effective. Also, the movie’s score consists of some excellent, atmospheric country music by Peter Salett. I don’t listen to much country, but I probably would listen to more if more of it was like this.

Overall, it’s an excellent movie that I heartily recommend. I hope this means Norton will be returning to meaty roles that he can sink his teeth into (he’s currently in production on an adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s novel Motherless Brooklyn, which is a perfect fit for him). I’m also expecting Wood to blossom into a respected actress in her own right. And I’ll keep an eye on this Jacobson fellow.

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