B- Sound B+ Extras C-
starring Edward Norton, Evan Rachel Wood, David Morse, Rory Culkin
written and directed by David Jacobson
by Walter Chaw Almost worth it for a scene on the set of a western where our deranged fabulist hero Harlan (Edward Norton) finally finds a home, David Jacobson's Down in the Valley is otherwise so much pretentious hoohah waving its indie banner like a parasol. Rather than serve to illustrate a point about form and function à la Gus Van Sant's shot-for-shot remake of Psycho, what Jacobson's film does is strain its affection for (affectation of?) Taxi Driver, to the point of re-enacting the sacred "You talkin' to me?" sequence--to the point of actually perverting Scorsese's satire into your typical avenging-father/straying-daughter intrigue. It's possible of course to boil Travis Bickle's odyssey down to that, but to call Down in the Valley "reductive" is too kind: this is Taxi Driver recast as a protect-your-children-from-bad-dates picture, one that turns its back on the dreamlife of a crocodile in favour of the restoration of familial strata. It fails the courage test--going so far as to subtly pose an anti-Second Amendment suggestion--after failing, more damnably, to rationalize its pilfering of perhaps the definitive yawp in modern American cinema. Shake Down in the Valley hard enough and out falls another produced-by vanity piece for Norton to exercise his blank (as in Miyazaki-forest-sprite blank), squinty-eyed Method for the approval of his rapidly-shrinking circle of admirers. As far as the Norton mystique goes, Ryan Gosling is cheaper and prettier.
Harlan believes he's a cowpoke from some Anthony Mann noir (a chase in the dark and fog underscores the connection), and when he meets teenaged Tobe (Evan Rachel Wood) at a gas station and she invites him to spend a day at the beach with her and her pubescent buddies, well, who wouldn't? Nah--truth is, most people Harlan's age would resist, meaning that for the first little while Down in the Valley is twisted in just the right Badlands way. Hopes that its start has set the stage for the lawless doom of Terrence Malick's lapsarian road trip are quickly extinguished, though--how much better would the picture be were Harlan, like Malick's Kit, denied a backstory and dropped, inexplicably, into the middle of a young girl's sexual dawn? When Down in the Valley loses its nerve (as it does often and dedicatedly), it decides that it's no longer enough to have had Harlan simply materialize--it has to offer a past spent in a loony bin, complete with a frustrated Loomis hunting him down, vengeful father (David Morse) at his side. The daddy is twice-enraged, as a matter of fact: not only is his daughter under Harlan's sway, but Harlan's Old West phantasmagoria seduced his young son (Rory Culkin) as well. Thus is the father figure supplanted as both object of desire and role model. Morse gives the role an exceptional amount of depth and complexity; if the film has an anti-hero, equal parts noble and ignoble, it's him.
All of this skirts the issue of how much Down in the Valley is a distended, infected boil in desperate need of a good lancing. It's full of itself, and its shambling corpulence as an entertainment speaks to Norton's bad habit of reading his own press. It's self-important, announcing itself as a Statement Movie even as it busily makes no discernible statement about anything in particular save that Norton thinks of himself as Robert De Niro and Paul Schrader rolled into one noisome package. In fairness, all that might really be missing is anything tangible to rebel against beyond the idea of making a picture with a budget--ironic because Norton's best films are products of the studio system (neither Fight Club nor 25th Hour are exactly zero-budget indies) and because the Norton-produced The Illusionist is much more condescending while being several shades less daring than Christopher Nolan's big-budget duelling magician piece The Prestige. If subject matter and premise become indistinct in the grey area between mainstream and indie, then the only distinction left is lack of experience, funding, and established talent. (What's more, it's easy to forget that everybody's favourite maverick flick Taxi Driver appeared magically under the Columbia banner courtesy the producers of The Sting.) Watching Down in the Valley is a lot like having a conversation with one of those wieners who believes that the only valuable cinema is the kind that surfaces for a week at the last surviving arthouse in their Podunk burg--using obscurity as the sole criteria for success in a way as hollow and gutless as the opposition that consults box-office returns as the provenance of quality.
TH!NKFilm wrangles Down in the Valley to DVD in an intentionally diffuse 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that replicates the autumnal glow of Jacobson's long, loving pans across the dusty San Fernando Valley; the abovementioned set-piece in a twilit fog is beautifully-rendered. Alas, whatever its subjective "flaws," the image decisively suffers from a significant amount of combing--it's difficult to stop on a 'clean' frame free of interlacing artifacts. Meanwhile, although the film's soundmix isn't terribly active, it's loud, and the DD 5.1 audio is surprisingly detailed during the picture's climactic gun battle. Four deleted scenes running a total of nine minutes are relatively useless, though I still would've appreciated any sort of rationale for their excision. (Nine times out of ten, the one place where commentary has the potential for instruction is in the discussion of editorial choices.)
A post-film Q&A (21 mins.) with Norton and Jacobson, mediated by a typically sycophantic Peter Travers, is provided as the most unsavoury of extras. As anyone who's attended one of these in person knows, they're by and large dispensable, if not outright wastes of time. Herein we learn, amongst other non-things, that Jacobson's first choice for the role was his producer, Norton. I also did not love Norton's long monologue about how fantasy is often the refuge for lonesome, sick minds. Blessedly, the segment seems to have been truncated from a no-doubt-interminable length. Blessedly again, there are no questions from the audience--Travers is "the audience" enough. A semi-forced block of previews for the similarly-themed The King, Little Athens, 10th and Wolf, and I Love Your Work cues up on startup, while choosing "trailers" from the Special Features menu initiates the same quartet. (Down in the Valley's own trailer gets a separate menu link.) A keepcase insert contains a two-paragraph "Director's Letter" that rambles on about nonesuch while revealing that Jacobson has seen Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid seventeen times. That's thirty-four in people years. Originally published: February 21, 2007.