Monday, December 18, 2006

Movie Review: Down in the Valley

Title: Down in the Valley
Director: David Jacobson
Writer: David Jacobson
Year: 2005 (film), 2006 (DVD)

Every generation of American filmmakers has its idea based on lore about how the West was won. Indeed, the mavericks of western legends range from sheriffs to outlaws, from homesteaders to cowboys. And when the boundaries pushed closer to the Pacific, we can include Oakies and prospectors. With pushers come those who are pushed over: Indians and Mexicans. Down in the Valley takes these characters and flips the genre on its head. The American West was lost. And no one cares.

Ok, one person cares: Harlan Fairfax Carruthers. He misses the old ways. He misses the frontier. And like the cowboy he reinvents for himself, he is alone. Even when he meets the station wagon (covered wagon) full of teens, in particular Tobe. No one understands. And, in keeping with the Western, when the cowboy literally crosses the fence of Tobe’s homestead, there’s hell to pay. Her father, Wade, is the country sheriff. Down in the Valley is rife with these lovely unwitting archetypes.

Writer/director David Jacobson, while not wanting to make a sociological study of his film (see the special features), paints both broad and subtle strokes concerning modernity. The wide vistas sliced by power lines are obvious. But there is a wonderful exchange between Wade and his son Lonnie about gumption:

Lonnie: The meek shall inherit the earth.
Wade: (Laughs) Where did you here
that crap?
Lonnie: Television

All the performances are stellar. Evan Rachel Wood, Rory Caulkin, and David Morse play off each other naturally as a family headed by a single father trying to keep his teenagers out of trouble. Harlan encompasses Edward Norton and moves in his skin with the grace of wind-driven tumbleweed.

The DVD’s special features include a Q&A with Norton and Jacobson with Rolling Stone film critic Peter Travers that give some insight into the writing of the script. The deleted scenes answer niggling questions about some minor plot points, but also raise the question of why were some cut in the first place.

Overall, Down in the Valley adds a fine nuance to a beleaguered genre and reminds us that “money is the root of all confusion.”

Take note of the gorgeous soundtrack featuring Peter Salett, which provides the wonderful backdrop.

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