Statutory Rope

Washington City Paper | May 15, 2006
Writer-director David Jacobson’s Down in the Valley is also set in a denatured location, but that’s the whole point: Its valley is the San Fernando, a vast hollow of suburban sprawl in which scattered pockets of rural life persevere.

The ranches and horse farms amid the tract housing provide jobs for the sporadic cowboy, which is what Harlan Carruthers (Edward Norton) professes to be—even if he is working at a gas station when he first meets his teenage muse, Tobe (short for October). She impulsively invites Harlan to the beach, a trip that culminates in hasty sex in the house Tobe (Evan Rachel Wood) shares with easily frightened little brother Lonnie (Rory Culkin) and their hot-tempered stepdad, Wade (David Morse), a prison guard with a sizable gun collection.

Harlan plays the part of a courtly, old-fashioned cowpoke who’s perplexed by the modern world, although his gentlemanly code apparently doesn’t preclude screwing a high school student. (Tobe’s age isn’t revealed, but Wade calls her “a minor.”) If Harlan poses as Jimmy Stewart in public, back in the cheap motel where he lives, he’s a cross between John Wayne and Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver. Facing down desperadoes in the mirror, he practices his fast draw; when he gets really excited, he actually pulls the trigger. Jacobson portrays Tobe’s precocious sexuality as a hazard to public order, but her new beau’s gun-slinging just might be more dangerous.

Harlan claims to be from South Dakota, and he insists he’s friends with the grizzled local rancher (Bruce Dern) from whom he occasionally “borrows” a horse. Although the fissures in his white-hatted persona soon become obvious, Harlan feels confident giving Tobe such ironic advice as “talk with your true voice.” One day when he can’t find his new girlfriend, the suburban cowboy decides to coach Lonnie in manliness, taking him out to plug cans and bottles. When things finally go wrong and Harlan must flee, it’s Lonnie who goes along for the fateful ride.

Norton, who’s one of Down in the Valley’s producers, has a taste for dark, earnest films, and Jacobson’s certainly fits that description. (Inevitably, the movie was developed with the help of the Sundance Institute, long a supporter of such fare, especially when it’s set in the American West.) Elegantly shot by Crónicas cinematographer Enrique Chediak, the film is a looker. But it takes itself altogether too seriously, even when dealing in giggle-eliciting clichés. Jacobson is capable of amusing juxtapositions, notably in a scene in which Harlan attempts to take sanctuary in an Orthodox synagogue. But the score—which alternates folky ballads, country standards, and Mazzy Star with flailing electric guitar—is standard-issue independent-cinema stuff. And many of the visual flourishes aren’t even fresh enough to be indie: When Tobe leaves her house in a funk, the skies immediately open on her.

Just about a month ago, Wim Wenders’ Don’t Come Knocking was ridden out of town for daring to imagine that the Western myth still has pertinence and that cowboy movies are still being made. Whereas Wenders began his film on a Western’s set, Jacobson ends his on one, which is an even more dubious idea. The director contrasts the banal present with an idealized past, but he seems overly enraptured by the latter. In linking Hollywood fable-spinning to self-delusion, Don’t Come Knocking inadvertently anticipated Down in the Valley, a movie that takes its protagonist’s self-mythologizing too much to heart.

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