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Down in the Valley

If any one actor working today could lay sole claim to a Campbellian archetype, it would be Edward Norton. Rarely playing the hero or villain on screen, and often assuming roles that defy audience expectations, Norton's skill as a Shapeshifter has made him not only one of the most interesting actors to come around in the past decade, but the envy of his professional peers. Arriving from out of nowhere (thanks to a blind audition), Norton earned an Oscar nomination with his first movie role as accused murderer Aaron Stampler in Primal Fear (1996) — he also managed to steal the film right out from under its star, Richard Gere, turning a routine courtroom thriller into a word-of-mouth sensation. Since then, the Yale-educated Norton has chosen his projects carefully, and often with an eye for what makes them interesting from an actor's perspective. At times, his manner or appearance is transformative (American History X, The Score). Just as often, our understanding of his character is what changes during the course of a story (Primal Fear, Fight Club). As an actor's actor, he can slip into any role without the need of makeup or excessive mannerisms, subtly becoming another person before our eyes, and yet still retaining enough of his own essential identity that we never lose sight of him. Like Robert De Niro, Norton can't conceal his bona fide movie-star charisma; he also shies away from the lights of Hollywood, preferring to remain in New York, where he first started out in Edward Albee productions. And while he's not above taking high-profile work in such movies as The Italian Job and Red Dragon, his selectivity has recently led him into independent cinema, where he's likely to deliver some of his most influential work.

Writer-director David Jacobson's Down in the Valley (2005) opens with a number of jarring visuals — a man in a cowboy hat takes in the view, which includes a 12-lane freeway viaduct, a grassy land layered with power-lines, and passenger jets that aim for runways while barely a hundred feet above busy traffic. The young man is Harlan Carruthers, a South Dakota cowpoke recently relocated to California's San Fernando Valley, where his aimless life involves working at a gas station, taking the bus most places, and re-enacting scenes from westerns in his modest apartment. More than a fish out of water, he's a virtual alien visitor, nicknamed "Tex" by several teenage girls who drop by his filling station to get gas and giggle at him. But one girl thinks there's more to Harlan — Tobe (Evan Rachel Wood), who invites him to the beach one afternoon and soon falls for the unassuming cowboy with his polite manners and easy charm. Harlan even makes friends with Tobe's kid brother Lonnie (Rory Culkin), but her stepfather isn't so easy to win over — corrections officer Wade (David Morse) thinks Harlan is either a joke or a menace, and he forbids the young man to see his daughter anymore. It's an edict that does little to repair Wade and Tobe's already fractured relationship, which has devolved into a series of screaming matches as her growing independence clashes with his Spartan views on life. But Harlan is determined to stand his ground, and he prepares to rescue Tobe and Lonnie from their dead-end domestic life.

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If Down in the Valley concerns itself with a man out of time, then perhaps it's appropriate that it's a film out of time as well — its closest progenitors are Terrence Malick's Badlands (1973) and Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976), both of which examine the sort of spiritual loneliness that can consume young men adrift in urban/suburban landscapes, eventually transforming their attempts at reaching a usable moral code into a final one that's merely self-absorbed and washed out in relative grays. For this, Valley feels very much like a throwback to the heady days of '70s cinema, as men who seek some sort of action (Kit Carruthers, Travis Bickle) realize that their lives seem to lack any sort of purpose whatsoever, and writer-director David Jacobson's homages to both films are clear and unmistakable. It's hard to tell if Harlan Carruthers is a cowboy philosopher, a romantic, or an eccentric — he offers up the sort of thoughts that would seem to come to a man who has spent most of his working life at a rancher's pace, and he speaks firmly about things like humility and responsibility. But he also lacks basic human sophistication, as if his world-view is too simple to be actually functional. Does he belong in another time? Or only South Dakota? Or does he not fit in there as well? Jacobson's film is content to meander its way through the opening scenes as we get to know Harlan through his interaction with Tobe and her family, allowing the eventual conflict to come to a slow boil as Harlan's hard-headed nature inevitably runs up against Wade's territoriality. Norton's performance is both natural and flawless, but he's matched here by David Morse, who takes on another in a string of heavies as the ex-military stepdad (and avid gun collector) — it's not clear where Tobe and Lonnie's mother has gone, but Wade's rages are the actions of a man who feels he is losing control over everyone around him who is supposed to love and respect him. Like Harlan, he also lacks interpersonal sophistication, although he's not above singing a Hank Williams song while strumming his guitar. As characters shift, so does the film's setting, from smog-choked suburbia to countryside, and eventually back in time for a brief moment (or so it would seem). But it's back in the Valley where Tobe and Lonnie are left to consider the foremost question that Harlan seems to raise: Are there such things as heroes, or only our basic need for them?

ThinkFilm and Lionsgate's DVD release of Down in the Valley offers an excellent anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby 2.0 Stereo audio tracks. Special features include a Q&A session with writer-director David Jacobson and star Edward Norton, who also served as the film's co-producer (21 min.), a deleted scenes reel (8 min.), and the film's theatrical trailer. Keep-case.

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