Sunday, May 28, 2006

DOWN IN THE VALLEY - great performances, great movie

DOWN IN THE VALLEY is a fascinating movie that tackles issues of personal identity, contact between families and outsiders, and relationships across the ages. It does so in a manner that is far more convincing and affecting than recent movies such as THE KING, and (I am laughing at mentioning this in the same review) PRIME. Set in contemporary California, the movie tells the story of a thirtysomething drifter called Harlan (Edward Norton), who comes across as a throw-back to the days of the Wild West. By chance he meets a teenage girl called Tobe (played by Evan Rachel Wood), who causally invites this strange, other-wordly man to the beach. Despite the uneasiness we feel at the age gap, it is clear from the early scenes of the movie that it is Tobe who is making all the running, although it is telling about Harlan's grip on reality that he never thinks to check how old she actually is - at least on camera. In addition, it is a mark of Edward Norton's talent that while he can incite the audience's unease at much that Harlan does, we never think of him as a stock-sexual predator. In fact, in many scenes between Tobe and Harlan - riding on horseback, or just sitting in the bath together - they just look plain innocent and love.

The relationship between Tobe and Harlan reminds me of a current hit song in the UK, whose chorus plays: "Show some love, you ain't that tough: fill my little world right up, right up." Both Tobe and Harlan are characters who live is small, isolated worlds. Harlan has no friends to speak of, no job, and no real home. He spends his time play-acting old Western movies in his motel room and writing letters that serve as vehicles for defining his persona rather than actual attempts at communication. Tobe meanwhile has a kid brother who she loves but is faintly irritated by and an absentee father. So when these characters meet, with nothing to distract them from this new all-consuming love, things reach a pitch intensity that is almost bound to be unstable. The intensity of love where there once was an emotional vacuum is echoed in Harlan's relationship with Tobe's younger brother, Lonnie. Lonnie is a poor, lonely kid who knows that he is not his father's biological son, and also that he lacks "gumption" and other qualities that would make his father, Wade (played by David Morse), look upon him kindly. When Harlan shows him attention and tells him he is an okay kid, it is as though Lonnie suddenly has something to believe in, and that faith is ever-enduring.

Other than the universally fantastic acting, other things to note about DOWN IN THE VALLEY are the evocative sound-track and photography, by DP Enrique Chediak. He beautifully contrasts the "road to nowhere" rat-race of crowded highways, day and night, with Harlan's horseback rides on the edge of the city. The topography of the Valley is used to great effort - notably when Harlan's takes a vantage point on the traffic below, and in scenes at dusk near the end of the movie, when Lonnie and Harlan are walking near the camp-fire. At times, you can just sit back and just soak up the photography with the wistful score, and let the action roll on - almost as an afterthought.

Which is what some viewers may want to do. Some of the people I saw this movie with complained that the screenplay took the characters to extreme places that seemed not at all in keeping with what we knew about them. However, I have to respectfully disagree. I think the script is at pains to point out the conflicting feelings that Tobe has about Harlan, and also, given what we know, fully explains Lonnie's unswerving devotion to him. In addition, the movie opens itself up to criticism by referencing a number of cinematic greats, not least TAXI DRIVER. Referencing the greats is always risky, because you remind the audience of films which they are likely to think "better" than what they are currently watching. Worse still, it can just seem lazy. However, I think that these cinematic references are justified, as they throw up the pop-culture references that make up Harlan's psyche.

To my mind, DOWN IN THE VALLEY is one of the most original and interesting movies that I have seen all year. You have to buy in to the underlying concept but I believe that once you do this, everything that Harlan, Tobe, Lonnie and Wade do seems in character. Best of all, there is a certain thrill in seeing such an all-round quality product - from the acting to the sound to the photography to the editing. Go check it out!

DOWN IN THE VALLEY showed at Cannes 2005 and went on release in France in February and the US in May 2006. It is currently on release in the UK. I do not know of a release date for Germany, Austria or Australia.


  1. Does it have any explosions?

  2. Well, that would be giving away the plot!