Down In The Valley


Reviewed by: Scott Macdonald

Down In The Valley
"I was no longer watching a story about people. I was watching an uninvolving exercise in cross pollination of themes and story constructs."

A small crowd of teenagers go on a day trip to the beach in San Fernando Valley. They meet a charismatic and slightly mysterious drifter, Harlan (Edward Norton, sporting a near perpetual 10-gallon hat), working at the local garage. One of the girls, Tobe (Evan Rachel Wood) falls for him instantly and extends an invitation to spend the day with them.

Thus begins a strangely conventional romance, which writer/director David Jacobson handles superbly in a classical Hollywood style. Their love is pure, simple and unblighted by outside forces. His romantic soul - expressed during a trip on "wacky weed" - and her inexperience and chutzpah gel well.

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Norton cannot be faulted in finding his character. He rises to the occasion so well that he holds the picture together, even as the script disintegrates in the final third.

David Morse (quite often the best actor in a bad movie, as Tobe's father, Wade), is equally imposing and when he and Norton clash early on, the tension is invisible, but palpable. Instinctively, Wade senses something about Harlan that he doesn't like. Even as Harlan recites a prepared speech about his honourable intentions with Tobe, it is to Norton and Morse's credit that we are never sure who is right, or wrong. It's a clumsily written scene, but the actors pull it off beautifully. Anyway, the result is Tobe is forbidden to see Harlan again, which, of course, makes no difference.

About halfway through, Harlan takes Tobe's moping kid brother under his wing, bonding with him and showing him the sights of the valley on horseback, eventually teaching him to squeeze off a couple of rounds at the disused canal. We learn that Wade also keeps a prized collection of antique pistols. No prizes for guessing what happens next.

Finally, the events of the plot rise to a head and form an unsatisfying resolution, largely down to repeatedly beating us over the head with a jumble of cinematic influences, especially the warm horror of Terrence Malick's Badlands - and a moment that also screams The Thin Red Line to boot - as well as interleaving the appropriate references to Taxi Driver (gunslinging in front of a mirror) and The Searchers.

A movie-set effort at genre deconstruction extends far longer than it ever needs to and the swim in symbolism becomes knackering. This is where I disengaged as a viewer. I was no longer watching a story about people. I was watching an uninvolving exercise in cross pollination of themes and story constructs.

The acting almost makes up for the crumbling storyline. Norton lets the past five years of phoning-in go and delivers a mesmerising performance, while Rory Culkin, as Tobe's brother, is shaping up superbly, making the transition from teen support player to twentysomething dramatic actor with cool confidence.

I only wish that Jacobson had the guts to rely on his and their obvious talent, instead of washing the story thin through established classics.

Reviewed on: 25 May 2006
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A pure love story goes dark in the shadow of the gun.
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Read more Down In The Valley reviews:

Iain Macleod ****

Director: David Jacobson

Writer: David Jacobson

Starring: Edward Norton, Evan Rachel Wood, David Morse, Bruce Dern, Rory Culkin, John Diehl, Artel Kayaru, Geoffrey Lewis, Elizabeth Pena

Year: 2005

Runtime: 125 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US


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