Down in the Valley(ThinkFilm, 9.26.2006)
Wim Wenders opened his recent Don't Come Knocking with Sam Shepard's aged movie star cowboy galloping away from a western movie set and trying to recapture a past that no longer exists. David Jacobson's Down in the Valley addresses many of the same themes and non-coincidentally culminates with Edward Norton's faux ranch hand stumbling upon a western movie set, which seems to be the only place he can find that is simpatico with his sensibilities.
Down in the Valley almost appears to be an intentional uprooting of Terrence Malick's Badlands from 1950s South Dakota to the modern day San Fernando Valley. Tobe (Evan Rachel Wood) is a spunky teenager, living with a reticent younger brother (Rory Culkin) and a protective father (David Morse), a volatile lawman. On the way to the beach with some friends, Tobe is charmed by moon-eyed gas station attendant Harlan Carruthers (Edward Norton), who claims to be a former ranch hand from South Dakota. The two quickly fall for each other, but Tobe's father disapproves, leading to the inevitable fatalistic conclusions.
Describing the film in terms of plot, though, makes it seem like a linear movie of the week when, in fact, it's a stream-of-consciousness allegory more about texture and symbolism than advancing a story. The film opens with DP Enrique Chediak's wistful shots of the American west being conquered and divided by the interstate. Then Harlan and Tobe's burgeoning romance plays out in pastoral shots as Peter Salett's (Keeping the Faith) bittersweet ballads and Mazzy Star's mood music blast on the soundtrack. Soon, though, scenes start to tear away Harlan's "aww shucks" facade and make us wonder what lies beneath, especially when he starts acting out old Westerns in his room and does a mirror routine that seems a conscious nod to Taxi Driver.
Norton's face has been absent from the big screen since 2003's The Italian Job, but he's returned with a bang both here and in The Illusionist, believably portraying men trying to forget their pasts and forge their futures with obsessive love that they'll do anything to secure. The rest of the supporting cast is excellent as Wood and Culkin both bring a tangible innocence to their roles and Morse gives some depth to a character that could have been one-note.
The disc features a gorgeous 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer with Dolby Digital 5.1 sound. The special features consist of an overly reverential Q&A with Norton and Jacobson that's moderated by Peter Travers (about 21 minutes), 4 decent deleted scenes (about 9 minutes), and the film's trailer. -- Colin Miller