Saturday, July 16, 2011

Down in the Valley

Down in the Valley (David Jacobson, 2005)  A stranger moseys into town and things get all disrupted.  It's the clap-board foundation for lots of westerns, and Jacobson's character study bears a resemblance to the genre, complete with gun-play, white hat/white horse, a girl and a hero-worshipping kid.

Except that it is set in the hard-as-concrete reality of the modern day San Fernando Valley and instead of open plains and buffalo, it's highways and SUV's guzzling from strip-mall to strip-mall.  And The Big Sky is full of jets on final approach to Hope Airport.

Tobe' (short for "October," so you already know her family is dysfunctional), played by Evan Rachel Wood is a bored teenager feeling trapped by her family, her baby-sitting schedule watching her brother (Rory Culkin)—we don't know where Mom is, but Dad is a security guard played by David Morse—and those damn mountains on all sides.  On an outing to the beach where she's a fifth wheel, Tobe' and her friends encounter the older Harlan Fairfax Curruthers (Edward Norton), who sticks out...well, like a cowboy in the San Fernando Valley.  Laconic, unassuming and gentlemanly, Harlan decides to leave his gas-station attendant job and go with the five on their outing, where Harlan and Tobe become fixated on each other and start a torrid affair, unbeknownst to Dad.

That's not good enough for Harlan.  Determined to do right by the lady, he visits her house to take her on a proper date and meet "the old man," who is immediately suspicious of the guy and his folksy ways.  Completely under Harlan's spell, Tobe openly defies her father, and pretty soon he forbids her from ever seeing him again.

Like that's gonna happen, Dad.

Down in the Valley slots right into Western territory (Harlan's the "outlaw" and Dad's the Sheriff) with a stetson tip to the teen romance genre, circa 1950's, as, in some segments Norton seems to be channelling James Dean.  It's another technically proficient, mercurial performance out of Norton who, despite being one of our better actors, never manages to jump into the mainstream or awards competition lists.  This might be due to his choice of projects, but it always seems that he is one likable character away from achieving the audience affection that, say, Robert Downey Jr, has achieved recently.

Whatever the reason, Norton's Harlan is the linchpin of this movie, an enigmatic figure around which everything revolves.  Once he enters an occupied frame (or a family situation that has an empty space in it), everything changes and not always for the better, and that begins with the first time Tobe and Harlan share the same frame, separated by car-window glass, suddenly noticing, pulling each other out of each other's minds and into each other's lives.

But, there are wide open spaces and "wide open spaces." For Harlan, his crowded mind has not much to do with reality, so much as fantasy, and the real reality is there is not much difference between the exterior-only movie-sets and and the housing developments under construction that he comes to occupy towards the end of the film.  When reality and fantasy clash, the result can be just the frame of a construction—looks good, but it can't hold up for very long. 

As pretentious and fantasy-driven as some of the mind-sets of his characters are, Jacobson's direction isn't—things happen in a flash and some of the confrontations are staged and executed in as unshowy and pragmatic a way as possible.  A life-long fan of The Movies, Jacobson does a lot of cribbing, from Westerns and Butch Cassidy, specifically, but also from Taxi Driver, which gives the film a dark tone, no matter how scouring the sunlight of Southern California can be.

Interesting film, one that stays with you for awhile before moseying on.

Boom.  Fantasy and reality clash

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