Cowboys are so hot right now. Everyone wants to be one. Harlan (Edward Norton) is no exception. He has the clothes, he knows the moves. He’s in modern day L.A. It’s a mismatch that could spark a comic masterpiece, where the crazy cowboy doesn’t understand modern life and everyone has a good laugh, a bit like the Beverly Hillbillies. And by comic masterpiece, I mean crushing torment.
But I’m totally digressing, because Down in the Valley isn’t a crushing comedy at all. It starts off as a gentle summer romance and slowly twists into a skewed western/thriller combo type thing. Harlan meets Tobe (Evan Rachel Wood, played by a bleached skeleton) and despite the age difference (Tobe’s a rebellious teen) they fall in love. Aw. It’s all summer fields and swaying grasses and swings on trees. It’s like summer on screen. And yes, maybe not a whole lot happens. But there’re hints that maybe Harlan’s a tad insane. And each hint adds to the general sense of foreboding that casts a cloud over all the summer fun and makes it just that little bit more interesting.
You know the manure’s going to hit the fan sooner or later, but when and how turns out to be a well played shock. And then things start to get a bit strange. There’s a fugitive situation, chases, shoot outs. What starts out as a meandering stroll turns into a bit of a scrabble, and perhaps writer/director David Jacobson gets a little bit carried away with it all. Unfortunately this is at the cost of the tone, which was slowly developed over the first half, and is then peed on from a great height by all the guns.
But, flawed though it may be, I still liked this film. The cast are indestructibly good. To be honest I could watch Ed Norton read out the Yellowpages and still be enthralled. He’s fast becoming one of my favourite actors, and adds great depth to mixed up Harlan, who’s just tying to find an identity. And likes guns. Evan Rachel Wood, annoyingly just nineteen years old, is solidly sultry, and little Rory Culkin, who’s surprisingly seventeen, plays a convincing thirteen year old. Top all that with David Morse (he’s in everything you’ve ever seen) as the sometimes violent but slightly sympathetic father figure, and you’ve got a pretty damn good cast.
Despite the muddled finale, there are also some great little touches. The slow sink into Western territory, matching our gradual understanding of Harlan’s dodgy sanity, offers up some striking contrasts. A car vs. horse chase through a posh housing development. A splendid shoot out on the set of a Western film set. It’s just a shame that the film started to feel just as confused as Harlan towards the end.
I’ve been struggling to rate this film. It makes CF0, gains a point for the acting, but loses one for getting all weird at the end. So CF0 it is.