Down in the Valley
You’re a 17 year-old Lolita living in the San Fernando Valley and life sucks and it’s spring break and there’s nothing to do, so you’re lazing in the back of your friend’s car on the way to the beach. The traffic is bumper to bumper and all you can see for miles around are thick veins of concrete and cookie-cutter suburbs. Your mom’s dead and your brother’s this dejected little oaf who follows you everywhere and your dad’s a cop who treats his firearms with more parental care than he does you. So whatever” is pretty much the only pose at your disposal. When everything is crappy and used-up, irony’s the warmest blanket you’ve got. But that doesn’t mean you can’t dream.
Then suddenly, right there, pumping your gas, is this cowpoke with spurs and a Stetson. He looks like a throwback to some old movie you’ve never even seen and he stares you right in the eye as he pumps the gas into your friend’s car. No one every looks anybody in the eye like that. Not out here. So you hop out of the car and invite him to the beach. ‘Cause, well, why not?
Next thing you know this cowpoke, who says his name is Harlan Carruthers, has bought you a “mighty fine” dress and introduced himself to your “Pa”. And there you are, lazing on the back of a gorgeous white mare, riding around on the last untouched inches of the valley.
David Jacobson’s Down in the Valley begins beautifully. Wide, sweeping shots of the glutted San Fernando Valley and the cramped, dysfunctional home Tobe (short for October, played by Thirteen’s Evan Rachel Wood) and her family live in are beautifully offset by beautiful visual nods to scenes from old western films. By taking us into cinema’s past, Jacobson takes us into the psychological equivalent of Tobe’s youthful delusions.
Together, we fall in love with Harlan (a note-perfect Edward Norton). He is the antidote to the urban landscape Jacobson so stunningly evokes. He is respectful and warm and seemingly impervious to cynicism. He reminds a jaded Tobe of her inner kindness. He runs out into traffic to exort Los Angeles’ gridlock gladiators to get out of their cars. He voices the nostalgia that all pulse-bearing people feel upon scanning the cold, soulless sprawl humanity has built over its birthright.
But knowing that Jacobson is the mind behind 2002’s nuanced serial killer portrait Dahmer, you can guess where he’s going from the outset. For those unaware of his track record, the best clue is in Harlan’s eyes. It’s that same schizophrenic shiftiness movie goers will remember from Norton’s carreer-making turn in Primal Fear.
After Harlan has taken Tobe riding, the owner of the horses claims claims they were stolen. Harlan maintains that the owner is an old friend of his who must be losing his mind, but Tobe’s father (David Morse) isn’t buying it. At first, Daddy seems like he’s playing the tyrant, but gradually it becomes increasingly clear that Harlan who (shades of Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle) likes to twirl, draw and sometimes fire pistols in his apartment, is a dangerous and delusional nutcase.
This is where the film looks ready to get a good head of steam. Both the audience and Toby struggle with the emerging reality together; indeed, in my own case, I was so charmed by Harlan, that I held onto my belief in him too long. Finally though, Jacobson’s script loses itself. Where it seeks to probe the roots of Harlan’s troubled consciousness, it ends up delving into the absurd. A menorah is stolen, a shot is fired, people who should die miraculously survive and the audience ends up wondering why Jacobson never hired a decent script editor. In the end, Harlan gets to play out a version of his Hollywood Western fantasy as the director abandons nuance in favour of heavy-handed symbolism.
Whether you’ll forgive Down in the Valley its final third depends on what type of movie-goer you are. If you’re the type who can close your eyes and imagine the film the director was aspiring to make, then you’ll adore Jacobson’s film. If you’re the type who believes the road to Ishtar is paved with good intentions, then steer clear.