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Monday, October 16, 2017 by Wade
Edward Gets Wood
For those who enjoy movies which challenge them then I strongly urge you to watch "Down in the Valley" because this is a movie which makes you think. In fact I am sitting here and I know I enjoyed "Down in the Valley" but trying to clarify what made me enjoy it is leaving me strangely at a loss for words. And the reason is that it is a movie which like an onion has different layers; some better than others, some not seeming to fit yet then later make sense. It's not that "Down in the Valley" is a complex movie, far from it but because it is a movie which does have so many layers that you constantly find yourself thinking about all these different things and trying to make sense of how you feel about them, despite leaving you with an overall feeling of watching something very good.
It's Spring Break and 16 year old Tobe (Evan Rachel Wood - The Missing) is heading down to the beach with her friends when she meets Harlan (Edward Norton - The Italian Job), a gas station attendant who she invites to join them. Harlan looks like a cowboy, sounds like a cowboy, has the old fashioned charm of a cowboy and says he's a cowboy, a rancher from South Dakota and Tobe falls for him. But Tobe's single father Wade (David Morse - The Green Mile) is not impressed and doesn't trust him one little bit forbidding Tobe from seeing him and her young brother Lonnie (Rory Culkin) from speaking to him. But Harlan is smitten, Tobe is his soul mate and nothing can stop him from seeing her, in fact he plans to take her away from her dad.
As "Down in the Valley" opens we briefly meet Harlan, he looks like a cowboy, he carries a lasso and wears a cowboy hat but he is standing over a freeway. You immediately jump to the assumption that maybe this is a young man raised as a cowboy, one of the last of a dying breed finding himself in an Urban setting. We also separately meet Tobe, her brother Lonnie and their single father Wade, a corrections officer and whilst not typically dysfunctional there is a sense that these are 3 individuals living under the same roof. And as such the initial perception is that this is a movie about alienation, people who don't fit in and in some ways it is.
What follows then is Tobe and Harlan who although we are never told appears to be much older than her, falling in love much to Wade's disapproval. Not only isn't he keen on seeing his daughter date but he doesn't trust Harlan at all despite coming across as a good old cowboy who is a gentleman. We watch as this relationship causes issues with Harlan seeming to lead Tobe and her brother Lonnie astray with Wade's anger boiling over to become physical not just towards Harlan but also Tobe. And this switches things because for a minute as "Down in the Valley" starts to feel like an update on an old western where the good guy cowboy deals with the evil abusive father.
Yet no "Down in the Valley" changes track again as things evolve the storyline gets deeper relationships become strained and we begin to realise that Harlan is not the simple good guy we first witness. To be honest that isn't much of a surprise as the excellent Ed Norton manages to play Harlan in such a way that whilst he comes across as nice he is also unsettling. I won't go into too much more detail other than to say how "Down in the Valley" plays out manages to mix elements of western with a touch of "Taxi Driver" and more depth over alienation and relationships.
"Down in the Valley" is very much like an onion because it does have so many layers and as such it is a movie which has the ability to speak to people in different ways. Unfortunately not all of the layers work and in trying to give it a touch of the urban western, updating elements which were common when westerns were the mainstay of cinema it seems to go a bit too fanciful. But even then director David Jacobson has done a marvellous job of shooting these western style elements, it's just they at times feel out of place in a modern movie.
What is for sure is that whilst "Down in the Valley" features great performances from David Morse, Evan Rachel Wood and Rory Culkin it is Ed Norton who makes it so compelling. And it is because Norton makes Harlan such a fascinating character charming in his old fashioned cowboy style, polite, friendly, the sort who would apologise for cursing in front of a lady. Yet you are never sure whether he is all he seems because Harlan is intentionally too perfect, he is the James Stewart character and it makes you wonder whether Harlan is trying to be something he isn't. And that throws up the question of if Harlan isn't who he seems then who is he?
What this all boils down to is that when you watch "Down in the Valley" I am sure you will end up with a sense of having watched something good and something original. Yet with the exception of knowing that you have watched Ed Norton give another first class performance you will be constantly mulling over what it is which made it so good.