Down In The Valley
Review by Jack Foley
DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Theatrical Trailer.
EDWARD Norton is no stranger to playing psychologically unhinged outsiders, having already impressed in the likes of Fight Club, Primal Fear and American History X.
With Down In The Valley, an edgy contemporary western, he provides yet another masterful turn as Harlan Caruthers, a lonely drifter still hung up on the mythology of the old American west.
At first amiable and hopelessly naive, Harlan’s fragile mental state eventually gives rise to a delusional soul whose ill-advised relationship with Tobe (Evan Rachel Wood), an innocent 18-year-old, sets in motion an unexpected and oddly surreal chain of events.
Thematically, David Jacobson’s film bears an uncanny similarity to James Marsh’s The King, especially in its depiction of the corruption of innocence, but it also tips its hat to the likes of Taxi Driver and Badlands without ever resorting to cheap imitation.
Rather, Down In The Valley is a visually striking and fiercely spellbinding experience that thrives on the power of its performances and the juxtaposition of its imagery.
The catalyst for the story is Harlan’s unexpected meeting with Tobe at a petrol station, where she and her friends stop off on their way to the beach.
Struck by Harlan’s pleasant way, she invites him to join them and he instantly quits his job, continuing to impress her with tales of his former work as a ranch hand.
Harlan even begins to impress Tobe’s quieter younger brother, Lonnie (Rory Culkin), but evidence of his mental instability begins to emerge when he is accused of stealing a horse from a ‘friend’, so that he can take Tobe riding in the valley – in this case, San Fernando.
The accusation arouses the suspicion of Tobe’s aggressive sherriff father, Wade (David Morse), who immediately takes a dislike to Harlan and tries to do everything in his power to end their relationship.
But his attempts to do so threaten to tip Harlan over the edge and it isn’t long before tensions reach a violent conclusion.
Some have criticised the latter third of Down In The Valley for being a little unbelievable, but the events that follow arguably lend the film its strong sense of identity as well as retaining its contemporary western feel.
As such, the sight of Harlan facing up to his enemies evokes memories of classic Western stand-offs, albeit set against the backdrop of modern movie sets and construction sites. It’s a bold move but one that ultimately succeeds in delivering a memorable conclusion.
Performance-wise, Norton is as excellent as ever, especially when toying with viewers’ perceptions of him early on, while Wood builds on the good work she did in Thirteen (even if the roles are very similar). Morse, meanwhile, conveys the frustrations of his father role very well and remains as solid as ever in support.
All of which leaves me to applaud Jacobson’s movie for offering a powerful and compelling variation on a well-trodden theme. It may follow an awkward path at times, but the film is all the more striking for doing so. Don’t miss.
Running time: 2hrs 5mins