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DOWN IN THE VALLEY

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Edward Norton, Evan Rachel Wood, David Morse, Rory Culkin, Bruce Dern
Director: David Jacobson
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Surround
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio: ThinkFilm
Features: See Review
Length: 114 Minutes
Release Date: September 26, 2006

“Most days I just want to step outside of my own heart. Go walk under a sky full of stars…and hear nothin’ but the wind.”

Film ***1/2

If Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver had been a disillusioned cowboy drifter instead of a disillusioned NYC cab driver, then his name would be Harlan Carruthers (Edward Norton). Like Bickle, Harlan longs for a different world; one similar to that of the old west…when times were simpler. He’s a free spirited modern day cowboy who has drifted into contemporary Los Angeles.

Down in the Valley is a most riveting and challenging character examination. It puts us in the shoes of a character who isn’t so much of a threat, but because the world surrounding him sees him as nothing more than such, he will be forced into becoming one. He’s logging for acceptance, something that doesn’t seem too likely.

It all begins during a chance meeting at a gas station where Harlan works. One look at Tobe (Evan Rachel Wood), a rebellious teenager, and it looks like love at first sight for both. Harlan’s appearance and manners come across as different, which is also what attracts Tobe. She invites him to the beach with her friends, he accepts, and thus the forbidden love affair begins.

For Tobe, her new love life won’t be bringing any smiles at home. Her ultra-strict father, a corrections officer named Wade (David Morse), is one of those fathers who is extremely overprotective yet doesn’t seem to be around the house when he should. So there’s no question that when he discovers his sixteen year old daughter is dating a seemingly odd thirtysomething man, it will be anything but pretty.

But Tobe knows she’s in love and that’s all she wants. Harlan is a sincere fellow who also becomes fast friends with Tobe’s younger brother, Lonnie (Rory Culkin). But outside her, the brother and Tobe’s friends, Harlan can’t seem to find acceptance for the kind of person he is. And it will only get worse when Wade makes it clear to him that he is to stay away from Tobe for good.

As the situation intensifies, the character of Harlan grows more complex. We get inside his mind more with each progressing scene and as a result begin to realize that underneath the charming gentleman he means to be, a darker side looms underneath the surface. You could call it the outlaw side of his cowboy persona.

I really have to give Down in the Valley a lot of credit. The reason for this is that it goes in many different directions and not once did it lose my interest. This wouldn’t work for every film, but this one has a way of getting you swept up in it until its final frame. It’s a film that does take a few risks, which is another thing I appreciated.

And although the overall plotline might seem like something that’s a little familiar, writer/director David Jacobson has created a mostly original film; one of poetic imagery that I haven’t seen from a filmmaker other than Terrance Malick. Equally poetic is the music in the film, courtesy of composer Peter Sallet. His songs brilliantly fit the mood of this sometimes dark journey of a film. 

And it also helps when you have such fine actors in the cast. Edward Norton continues to prove why he is one the best actors of our generation with one of his riskiest roles to date. It definitely ranks with his turns in both Fight Club and American History X. And the beautiful Evan Rachel Wood also demonstrates why she is one of the best young actresses to ever come around. I really couldn’t have imagined any other actress in her age range being able to pull this role off so remarkably well.

Down in the Valley is beautifully filmed, wonderfully acted piece. Anyone who appreciates a truly daring character piece will no doubt be riveted by this exceptional piece of work.

Video ****

The breathtaking look of the film is captured in this wonderful anamorphic presentation courtesy of ThinkFilm. The cinematography by Enrique Chediak (who also shot The Faculty and Boiler Room) is so awe-inspiring that words can barely describe how incredible it really is. And the anamorphic picture does this element complete justice from beginning to end. Picture is clear and crisp, with no image flaws detected, and the level of overall detail is simply stunning.

Audio ****

I wasn’t expecting much from the audio portion of this disc, which is why I was immediately stunned by how outstanding it was. The 5.1 mix takes advantage of every possible sound element for what is actually a dialogue oriented piece. But the music, numerous set pieces with plentiful crowd noise, and even a gunfight or two play off very strong. One of the bigger surprises of the year in terms of audio quality.

Features **

I would’ve loved a commentary track by either David Jacobson or Edward Norton, but this release gives the next best thing, A Q&A Session with the two following a screening of the film in May. Also included are several deleted scenes, a Theatrical Trailer and a bonus trailer gallery.

Summary:

Down in the Valley is a much different take on otherwise familiar material. It won’t satisfy everyone’s taste, but those who want a truly challenging character piece with plenty of good acting and nice filmmaking to spare should indeed take notice.

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