Harlan Carruthers is a blissful cowboy, all scuffed boots, aw-shucks mannerisms, and a negligent sort of sensuality. He’s lightening-quick with his twin single-shot Colts and loves nothing more than riding his horse to the highest hill around and surveying the beauty of the landscape.
He’s also a walking anachronism, because Down in the Valley is a modern-day tale, and the title refers to the overbuilt suburbia that is the San Fernando Valley, the land of crowded freeways and chain stores that marks the northern reaches of Los Angeles. But Harlan, played by Edward Norton
, swaggers through, contentedly out of place, until he catches sight of Tobe (Evan Rachel Wood
), a teenage nymph who pulls into the service station where Harlan works as she is on the way to the beach with her giggling friends. It’s unclear why the group dismisses Harlan as out-of-place instead of in fashion, but Tobe is as instantly taken with him as he is with her, and he quits his job to catch his first sight of the ocean with her. Article continues below
Thus the two begin a dreamy and old-fashioned sort of romance, a 1940s film fantasy unfolding across modern suburbia. It is precisely the sort of relationship that appeals to Tobe, a teenager insistent on how grown-up she is, as a mature idyll, full of staring into one another’s eyes and discussions about speaking in your “true voice” and damn-the-world make-out sessions on public transportation. But it is also readily apparent to the audience, and to Tobe’s gruff corrections officer father Wade (David Morse
), that this is a relationship that will decidedly not end well.
Despite the promise of the start, aided in large part by strong performances from all leads, Valley suffers, mostly from likely unintended consequences of casting and characterization. Norton is visibly, decidedly older than his co-star here, and yet no one comments or questions what this thirtysomething guy is doing with a girl half his age. It seems almost as if Harlan was meant to be played by someone in early twenties. And given that Harlan is shown literally playing pow-pow cowboy games in his apartment in an unnerving hybrid of Lone Ranger fandom and Robert DeNiro
in Taxi Driver, were he younger he could be described as excitable; as it is, I was left to wonder if we were supposed to find Harlan a little… special.
Though the film slows a bit towards the middle, the direction, by David Jacobson
(who also wrote the screenplay) displays a certain deftness, an economy of character that makes them somehow understandable and relatable without ever actually explaining them. From the literally the first moments, Lonnie (Rory Culkin
), Tobe’s little brother, is recognizable as a savagely lonely young man, which slowly develops into his major function as the plot spirals out of control.
Of course, economy has its downfall as well. The fascination, on the part of multiple characters, with all of the readily-available guns could only more obviously be the road to tragedy if each firearm came with a flashing neon arrow exclaiming “Plot Point Here.” (And yet, when it comes, the turn to violence is too abrupt and taken to a far more devastating effect than is warranted by the rest of the film.) Furthermore, one ending would have been enough – instead, we are offered a protracted finale that repeats the exact same scenario at least three times, it seems nothing more than an effort to offer the characters a full assortment of locales to play in.
If it didn’t fall apart after its strong start, Down in the Valley could have been a breathtaking movie; as it is, it is one just keeping a step above the pitfalls hampering it. Thanks to the uniformly excellent acting, though, it salvages an identity as a moderately worthwhile indie, and one that shows true promise for Jacobson as a writer and director.