Monday, March 09, 2015

Down in the Valley

Originally Written and Posted at on 12/8/06 w/ Additional Edits & Revisions.

Written and directed by David Jacobsen, Down in the Valley is the story of a cowboy who meets a rebellious teenage girl as they begin a torrid relationship as he copes with the modern world. The film is an exploration into a man who finds himself in a world where he tries to play cowboy as he faces the darker realities of the modern world. Starring Edward Norton, Evan Rachel Wood, Rory Culkin, David Morse, and Bruce Dern. Down in the Valley is an enchanting yet uneven film from David Jacobsen.

Arriving onto the San Fernando Valley, a cowboy named Harlan (Edward Norton) enters into the strange, vast world filled with gas stations, shops, and cars. To Harlan, it's a mysterious world as he lives at a motel and takes a job at a gas station. Meanwhile, a rebellious, 17-year old girl named Tobe (Evan Rachel Wood) also feels lonely since she lives with her father Wade (David Morse) and her shy, 13-year old brother Lonnie (Rory Culkin). Since Tobe doesn't get along with her father, she often goes out with her friends including April (Kat Denning) where on the way to the beach, Tobe meets Harlan at the gas station. An attraction immediately happens as Harlan joins Tobe and her friends to the beach where they fall in love. After introducing Harlan to Lonnie, Wade becomes uncomfortable at Tobe's new relationship with Harlan.

After a night in the town driven by Ecstacy, Harlan and Tobe's relationship becomes passionate which makes Wade uneasy. Even when Harlan and Tobe decide to go horseback riding where the horse's owner named Charlie (Bruce Dern) accuses Harlan of theft. After Wade deals with Charlie, he forbids Tobe to see Harlan again. Still, Tobe's love for Harlan remains strong as she has to go San Diego for the weekend to be with her friends. Harlan however, tries to live without Tobe for the weekend often pretending to be in some Western or writing a letter to a man named Joe. Hoping for Tobe to return on the day she was supposed to, he finds Lonnie where he takes Lonnie shooting since Wade owns some authentic guns. Upon returning home, Wade finds Lonnie with Harlan and threatens to shoot him if he doesn’t leave his family alone.

Learning what Wade had done, Tobe meets Harlan where she asks him to leave the family alone till Wade cools down. With his cowboy fantasy starting to blur with reality, Harlan gets in trouble as he gets kicked out of his hotel while trying to steal things hoping to win Tobe back. Still, Harlan finds himself alienated by the modern world as he remains stuck in the Old West. After meeting Tobe after some time away from her, he plans to make an escape with her but Tobe isn't sure what's going on. After an accident, Harlan's vision of the Old West begins to collide with reality as he tries to kidnap Lonnie and have a confrontation with Wade, who finds out some troubling news about Harlan from an investigator (Geoffrey Lewis).

Films about reality against fantasy does often require strange fantasy sequences but for what writer/director David Jacobson goes for is an internal conflict in a man who has a love for the West but finds himself alienated by the modern world. While the film is largely inspired by the work of the legendary Terrence Malick, notably Badlands, the film does have the same poetic imagery and dialogue in terms of what Harlan is in and in his relationship with Tobe. Despite the Malick-esque imagery and imagery, the film's script is very flawed. While some can figure out the tense relationship between Wade and Tobe, there's no back story into their tension. Plus, the first half of the film is a love story while the second half becomes a modern-day Western where they're both interesting but makes the film to be uneven. Despite a lot of wonderful imagery, scenes, and everything else, Jacobson doesn't seem to know what kind of film he's making though the performances do remain consistent with its Badlands-like tone.

Helping Jacobson in his unique vision is cinematographer Enrique Chediak whose wonderful photography of many of the film's exterior settings, notably the hills of the San Fernando Valley is breathtaking as well some night sequences that shows the nightlife of Los Angeles in all of its glory. Production designer Franco Giacomo Carbone and set decorator Robert Greenfield do fantastic work in providing the idea of the West in a fantasy sequence for Harlan while showing the colorful and modern look of Los Angeles. Costume designer Jacqueline West does great work in creating the cowboy look for Norton while giving Evan Rachel Wood some wonderful dresses.

Editors Edward Harrison and Lynzee Klingman does wonderful work in providing a rhythmic, stylized editing that gives the film a nice flow and feel. Sound designer Scott Sanders does some great work in the film's sound, including a scene where Harlan goes to a synagogue that reveals his alienation. The film's haunting score is filled with wonderful guitar work from Peter Salett that brings a sense of suspense and atmosphere to its varied sequences. The soundtrack is largely filled with dreamy mixes of music ranging from mariachi to old-school Western songs as well as cuts from Patsy Cline, Hank Williams, Calexio, and two great tracks from Mazzy Star where the vocals of Hope Sandoval provide some of the film's most haunting moments.

The film’s cast includes some wonderful small performances and cameos from Ira David Wood IV, Kat Dennings, Ty Burrell, Elizabeth Pena, and Geoffrey Lewis as an investigator. In a small role, Bruce Dern is great as a haggard ranch owner who is suspicious of Harlan’s motives and understanding of Wade’s control issues. David Morse is excellent as the strict, caring Wade who is trying to talk to his children while dealing with Harlan as Morse does some outstanding work in the scenes he's in. Rory Culkin is amazing as the shy, scared Lonnie who tries to seek some kind of adventure and confidence as he often relies on his sister and Harlan since his dad isn't around much. Evan Rachel Wood is fantastic as Tobe as this young woman who copes with growing pains as she falls for Harlan while having a hard time dealing with Harlan's eccentricities. Finally, there's Edward Norton in a brilliant performance as Harlan as this troubled man who seems like someone that is out of step with the times as he wants to play cowboy in a world that is very complicated as it is this very fascinating mix between fantasy and reality.

The Lions Gate/ThinkFilm Region 1 DVD of Down in the Valley presents the film 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround & 2.0 Stereo sound in 16x9 widescreen presentation. The DVD also brings trailers to not just this film but The King w/ Gael Garcia Bernal and William Hurt, I Love Your Work by Adam Goldberg, and other films. Two big special features are on the DVD. The first is a 21-minute Q&A session with Edward Norton and director David Jacobson as they're interviewed by Rolling Stone film critic Peter Travers. In the interview, Jacobson talks about the collision of fantasy and reality and how the San Fernando Valley has a mystique concerning the West. Edward Norton talked about getting the script in 2003 and wanting to work with Jacobson as the two developed the project and both wanted Evan Rachel Wood for the role of Tobe after seeing her in thirteen in which the two widely praised her as well as the other actors as Norton was laid-back in the interview.

The second big special feature is a nine-minutes worth of four deleted scenes. The first is an extended opening sequence involving Tobe and Lonnie on a bridge in which Lonnie causes an accident. The second is a deleted scene where Harlan looks for a new hat and buys the white dress that Tobe would wear. The third is touching scene involving Lonnie and Wade about an incident in where Lonnie professes his innocence. The final scene is an extended sequence of a supposed fantasy scene where Harlan talks to a cowboy played by Ty Burrell.

Down in the Valley is a superb yet flawed film from David Jacobsen that features top-notched performances from Edward Norton, Evan Rachel Wood, Rory Culkin, and David Morse. While it is uneven in its exploration of fantasy and reality, it does manage to bring in some compelling ideas about the complications of the modern world. In the end, Down in the Valley is a stellar film from David Jacobsen.

© thevoid99 2015


Anonymous said...

You are right, this has flaws, but the cast is not one of them. Edward Norton is the, one of the best actors of all time, and David Morse should have snagged an Oscar for this. Brilliant performance.

thevoid99 said...

I know it's not a perfect film but it is still a good one as the cast alone makes it worth watching. Morse is severely underrated. When is he going to get some awards attention?

Brittani Burnham said...

Great review! You're right, it's not perfect, but it's one of those indies I always recommend to people. The acting is just flawless. Plus I thought Norton and Wood were so insightful when they were doing press for this. I loved reading their interviews.

thevoid99 said...

@Brittani-Thank you. Evan is an amazing actress. I don't know why she isn't any bigger. She is in my list of favorite actresses along with Jena and Scarlett.

Ruth said...

What year is this film? Wow, Edward Norton & Evan Rachel Wood look so young here, practically still baby-faced. I should give this a shot!

thevoid99 said...

@ruth-It came out in 2005 at the Cannes Film Festival but was released theatrically in 2006. It's a good film, flawed but interesting as it has a great cast.

thevoid99 said...

@ruth-It came out in 2005 at the Cannes Film Festival but was released theatrically in 2006. It's a good film, flawed but interesting as it has a great cast.