Saturday, 17 March 2007

Down in the Valley (2006)

Down in the Valley

Edward Norton is always an actor worth watching in my view. He's one of those rare Hollywood actors who seems to choose quality (or at least 'quirky') over quantity when selecting his film roles.

The trailer for Down in the Valley is an intriguing one too, albeit touching on subject matter that seems to have already been covered in last year's The King. So this was on my 'Must See' radar very early on, despite the extremely luke-warm reviews the film received on its theatrical release. The signs had been there of course with the long delay between completion of post-production in 2005 and the eventual theatrical release late in 2006.

Ed Norton plays Harlan, a seemingly friendly rancher with old world values

David Morse plays the distant and rather severe single-parent to a withdrawn, emotionally damaged young boy (Rory Culkin) and a rather obnoxious, petulant and disobedient teenage girl 'Tobe' (Evan Rachel Wood). As the film opens we see that the family are still individually nursing their wounds after the death, presumed to be some years earlier, of the wife and mother of the family.

A chance encounter between Tobe and Norton's character, Harlan Carruthers - a charismatic and seemingly charmingly old-fashioned cowboy - sets in motion a sequence of events that will have fatal consequences for the dysfunctional, but firmly bonded, family that Carruthers inveigles his way into.

Signs that the charming Carruthers might not be all he appears to be are there from his first chance encounter with Tobe at a filling station. Taunted and laughed at by Tobe's friends for being a simpleton from Hicksville, he gives up his job and sole means of income on a whim when Tobe invites him to join her and her friends on a beach trip. Tobe's immature and somewhat furtive infatuation causes problems when it becomes clear how intense Carruthers feelings are. We're talking not so much Down in the Valley here as 'Going Down' in the Valley! Tobe's father is a stern man with old-fashioned values, no matter how charming his daughter's new suitor may appear to be on the surface. He is a suspicious man and not a stupid one, and confrontation seems inevitable when Tobe is arrested with her new boyfriend and there are tell-tale signs that his lonely, fragile son is also being seduced by the new 'father figure' he's secretly been yearning for. While the real father is out earning money to keep the wolves from the door, Carruthers is building relationships that will not only tear the family apart (perhaps before bringing them closer together again?), but will ultimately have tragic consequences.

Evan Rachel Wood is precocious teenager Tobe, who may have taken on more than she's realised when she starts seeing Harlan behind her father's back

If you're looking for a cheery, 'feel good' movie then this isn't it! But if you're looking for an interesting character study, albeit with no great in-depth plot or complex story, then Down in the Valley is well worth 112 minute of your time.

The story, such as it is, is languidly told, with some beautiful cinematography and excellent acting throughout. Admittedly this is primarily a vehicle for Norton, never less than impressive with his fake drawl and beautifully portrayed moments of psychotic behaviour. In weaker hands the Carruthers character would have been inconsistent and far too irrational to be believable, and certainly not the likeable, sympathetic and somewhat tragic character we get here. Norton imbues Carruthers with traits that make his behaviour not only believable, but also somehow justifiable, despite the increasingly obvious signs of mental illness. One never has the sense that this is an evil or deliberately evil man, as one might have had with a weaker performer.

Of course, much of this is down to having a good script, helped significantly, to the detriment of the other characters perhaps, by the amount of screen time Norton is given here to work his performance. But it's the subtle mannerisms that Norton works into the many silent moments he has that convince you his character is real flesh-and-blood rather then esoteric words on a page. There aren't too many actors in Hollywood today who could pull off a performance with as much depth and subtlety as is evident here.

David Morse is single parent Wade, struggling to hold his family together, and suspicious of Harlan from the get-go

If the film does have a weakness, it's that one never feels any real involvement in, or sympathy for, the character who is Carruthers' main protagonist. David Morse is a good actor, but he's not given enough meat in his thinly written part for us to understand his motives, want to identify with him or even to care what happens to him and his family. As a result the big clash of the movie - the showdown between two men totally at odds with each other and fighting for control of the same family - feels more like a damp squib than the climactic ending it should have been. I suspect it's this, rather than the finely detailed, and beautifully depicted journey we've been taken on, at least for the first two thirds of the film, that has resulted in all the luke-warm reviews.

Credibility is needlessly stretched in trying to justify to the audience that Carruthers' Wild West delusions about himself as a cowboy hero from the old Wild West are genuine. A totally unnecessary, distracting and completely unbelievable trick is used to try and show Carruthers' world viewpoint. We are transported with Carruthers back to the old frontier days for several minutes, wondering if what we're seeing is a dream, a fantasy from Carruthers' viewpoint or something else entirely. Eventually a camera is revealed in the background to show that Carruthers has in fact stumbled onto a Western film set and is talking to actors who are playing roles in character, which is a stretch in audience credibility too far. Even the most infrequent film or television viewer surely knows that consecutive scenes are not shot in sequence, without interruption and from different viewpoints in real time, even if they don't twig that you couldn't shoot all the angles and changes shown using a single distant camera! The overall effect is for the audience to go "Whaaaaaaaaat?! You're kidding right?!" at the camera reveal, and as soon as the audience does that you've lost them.

Rory Culkin plays the emotionally stunted Lonnie, who latches onto Harlan as a surrogate father figure

Director/writer David Jacobson's beautifully shot film is flawlessly transferred to DVD, so it's disappointing to have to mark the DVD release down on account of it's having no extra's. You'd think Jacobson would have SOMETHING to say about his film! Only a trailer is included on this 'vanilla' release, and even that's included in one of those 'widescreen displayed inside 4:3 format' versions that lazy film companies seem to have made the norm on releases that are anamorphic widescreen for the main feature.

Down in the Valley is well worth viewing, despite the disappointing box office, if you like your films to be different from the Hollywood formulaic norm. In many ways flawed, it's nevertheless an interesting character study with an acting performance from Norton that's well worth seeing. I recommend it as a rental, or if you're feeling flush, for purchase.

It soon becomes clear that Harlan is not the character he first appears to be

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