Down in the Valley


Directed by David Jacobson

3.5 stars

Not much more you could ask of someone than to take responsibility for their actions,” says the cowboy, with characteristic Old West chivalry. “That, and not breaking the law with a minor,” retorts the angry, modern-day suburban father whose rebellious daughter is the minor in question.

In “Down in the Valley,” writer and director David Jacobson’s new moody, independent film, ironic juxtapositions of viewpoints anchor the plot in people-driven drama, which is at times laughable, disturbing, and thought provoking.

Breathtaking visual and sound effects accompany nuance-rich performances in attempts to create a powerful and artistic piece of cinema. However, the reality created by the well-written and well-acted characters is ultimately undermined by too many self-consciously inventive film tricks.

Much like the film itself, Harlan Fairfax Caruthers (Edward Norton), the movie’s drawling, gun slinging, cowpoke protagonist, is difficult to take without a grain of salt. The idea of a horseless, homeless cowboy roaming around the urban and suburban areas of the California central valley rightfully elicits some doubt and curiosity in the film’s cast of characters.

Where defiant teen Tobe (Evan Rachel Wood, “Thirteen”) sees excitement and intrigue, her father (David Morse, “The Green Mile”) sees trailer trash, and her kid brother (Rory Culkin, “Mean Creek”) sees a role model. The film traces the melancholy trajectory of this dysfunctional family’s interactions once they come into contact with Harlan, with the psychological motivations behind each of the characters becoming clearer as the plot wears on.

The beautiful cinematography serves a dual purpose: sometimes it focuses the viewers’ attention on the mental and emotional states of the characters, while at other times it takes the film through tangential episodes that look really amazing but serve no purpose to the plot.

The positive, useful version of cinematography cunningly reflects the extremes of each character’s psychology, often while they are under the influence of drugs, alcohol or heavy doses of emotion (these episodes occur frequently throughout the film). During one of the more intimate scenes, the camera slowly shifts back and forth between the faces of Harlan and Tobe until they seem to be perfectly and eerily melded together. Cinematographer Enrique Chediak expertly times the use of unfocused, shaky or jumping footage to pull the viewer into the interior world of the characters.

However, in the less-useful interludes, the film spends an exorbitant amount of time studying the effects of movement, contrasting light and darkness, and other purely aesthetic criterion on the camera. These scenes communicate the emotional and metaphysical turmoil of the characters, in theory, but the balance between visual coolness and purposeful movement of the film definitely shifts toward form over function.

Nevertheless, a few of the heavily stylized, minimally scripted scenes do profoundly affect the audience. These scenes are the ones that powerfully pair contrasting music and sound effects with the deluge of visual artistry and action to draw a greater conclusion than a prettily shot film. For instance, a medley of barhopping and raucous revelry is narrated by the soft, acoustic music that permeates the rest of the film. Also, some of the edgier scenes incorporate voices and other mundane sounds, transforming the expected into something unanticipated and unsettling.

Although all of the actors were convincing in their portrayals, Edward Norton found the greatest success in his most challenging character. Harlan’s emotional layers could be completely lost if a less adroit actor had portrayed him. Instead of considering him to be two-dimensional or unbelievable, the audience accepts and empathizes with Norton’s representation of Harlan, the overblown Peter Pan persona and walking anti-anachronism. Norton’s confident development of character transforms ridiculous and surreal elements into plausible and lamentable events.

Bottom Line: The over satiation of artistic elements and the negligible editing of “Down in the Valley” choke some of the vitality from an inventive film with inspired acting.