At age 35, Judge Brendan Babish didn't have quite as much success with the high school girls as Edward Norton.
Sometimes it's hard to find your way…
Writer/Director Danny Jacobson follows up his 2002 made-for-TV movie Dahmer with this offbeat thriller starring Edward Norton.
Facts of the Case
Tobe (Evan Rachel Wood, Thirteen) is your stereotypical Los Angeles teen. She dresses provocatively, takes drugs, and has nothing by disdain for her blue-collar father. One afternoon, while driving to the beach with her friends, she notices that the hick gas station attendant is pretty hunky. On a hunch, she invites Harlan (Norton) to come with them. The two end up spending the day together, and soon find themselves deep in puppy love.
However, Wade (David Morse, Dancer in the Dark), Tobe's father, doesn't much like the cut of Harlan's jibe. He finds the 30-something urban cowboy a little suspicious, and forbids his daughter from seeing him. Of course, Tobe disobeys her dad with relish and, surprise, surprise, turns out father does know best and Harlan is not all that right in the head.
Edward Norton is undoubtedly one of the finest actors of his generation. I could extol his greatness for several paragraphs, but I will limit my praise to one observation: Norton is one of the few actors who can play, with equal ability, characters that are meek and passive and those that are strong and intimidating. Like Walt Whitman, he contains multitudes. His impressive range is perhaps best exemplified by his performance as the wet blanket lawyer in The People Vs. Larry Flynt and his Oscar-nominated turn as a neo-Nazi skinhead in American History X only a few years later. I mention this because in Down in the Valley, Harlan is alternately a modest ranch hand and a deadly gunslinger and Norton is probably one of the few actors who could have effectively portrayed these almost contradictory character traits.
There's just one problem: Norton was 35 years old when shooting started. To be fair, the film never makes clear how old Harlan is, but I can't believe that while writing the script Jacobson was intending Tobe to run off with someone that age. And I can understand why a filmmaker whose last movie was Dahmer would sacrifice a piece of his film's integrity to land an actor of Norton's (who was a also a co-producer) stature. Indeed, Norton does a fine job playing Harlan. But the age difference ends up affecting so many aspects of a promising story that the film simply no longer seems credible.
Of course the first questionable occurrence is Tobe's interest in Harlan in the first place. I can certainly imagine a disaffected L.A. teen falling for a plain spoken ranch hand, but at 35 Harlan's aw, shucks cowboy shtick would probably have little effect on a 17-year-old Valley girl. I remember being 17, and at 17 anyone in their 30s is pretty old, and definitely undatable. And while it is strange Tobe's friends never mention the age difference, it is simply unbelievable that her controlling father would never bring it up. Admittedly, Wade does act suspicious when he first meets Harlan, but I don't think any halfway conscientious father would have even allowed his daughter to even step out the door with him in the first place.
This inability for characters in Down in the Valley to grasp the obvious plagues the entire film. After Harlem gets them both arrested, Tobe's loyalty to him over her father seems idiotic instead of merely misguided. Tobe's young brother, Lonnie (Rory Culkin), also retains allegiance to the cowboy even after common sense dictates otherwise. And poor Wade, instead of ever explaining his reasons for distrusting Harlan (like he's a 35 year-old unemployed cowboy!), he just smacks his daughter and screams in her face.
All of these inscrutable actions create a film populated by characters we neither empathize with nor root for. This is particularly unfortunate, because the first half of Down in the Valley showed so much promise. Despite being rankled by their age difference, I enjoyed Harlan and Tobe's nascent courtship. There was something interesting and original about this enigmatic cowboy hooking up with a flighty teenager. And since I was unfamiliar with the plot before watching the film, I kept thinking please don't turn Harlan into a violent psychopath, because movies where the perfect boyfriend turns into a murderous thug are so overdone and stale at this point. Of course, what I feared is just about exactly what happened.
For all the problems with story, Down in the Valley visually captures the urban desert of Los Angeles better than anything I've seen in years. The picture on the DVD is sharp and bright and allows the glint and grit of the city to take on a sort of beauty. The extras include a Q&A with Norton and Jacobson as well as some deleted scenes. In the ponderous Q&A, Jacobson claims that Norton was his dream actor for the role of Harlan, though I still find this hard to believe. There are four deleted scenes, totaling about nine minutes. Like most deleted scenes, they are mildly interesting but would have added little to the film's story.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Down in the Valley came out nearly the same week as The King, a far superior thriller with a similar plot. While I don't think either film was destined for box office success, my guess is having release dates in such close proximately helped neither. Now that both of these movies are getting released on DVD within a few weeks of each other, I have to strongly urge anyone thinking about watching Down in the Valley to instead check out the almost criminally overlooked and underrated The King.
As a whole, Down in the Valley is neither as good as its promising beginning, nor as bad as the sloppy, inexplicable conclusion. Ultimately this is a film that manages to be fairly entertaining, but still unfulfilling.
Edward Norton, I think it's time for you to act your age. Guilty.
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