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DOWN IN THE VALLEY (director/writer: David Jacobson; cinematographer: Enrique Chediak; editor: Lynzee Klingman; music: Peter Salett; cast: Edward Norton (Harlan Carruthers), Evan Rachel Wood (Tobe), David Morse (Wade, the father), Rory Culkin (Lonnie), John Diehl (Steve), Bruce Dern (Charlie); Runtime: 117; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Holly Wiersma/Edward Norton/Adam Rosenfelt; ThinkFilm; 2005)
“The more you know about it the less likable it becomes.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Writer-director David Jacobson’s (“Criminal”/”Dahmer”) film is an offbeat modern day cowboy tale played out as a romance/psychological-drama set in California’s San Fernando Valley that the more you know about it the less likable it becomes. Though you should get a hint at where it’s heading when you note Jacobson’s previously small-budget indies. It moves from drama (a sensitive character study) to a series of seemingly endless and unlikely shoot-outs and escapes from the law (imitating a “Badlands” mood) until it sadly becomes a drag (still overlong though reportedly cut since its Cannes opening) and mercifully spares us by ending after a series of false endings as a strange misfire that descends into a mindless action thriller.

Tobe (Evan Rachel Wood), short for October, is a pretty 18-year-old high school student with an attitude problem. The rebellious hottie and her timid sulking adolescent brother Lonnie (Rory Culkin) dwell in the ‘burb with their single father Wade (David Morse), a correction worker in California’s San Fernando Valley who is strict but clueless in how to deal with his bratty daughter. One day during spring break the sullen Tobe and her wisecracking girlfriends go to the beach and stop to get gas, where they are served by the thirtysomething drifter Harlan Carruthers (Edward Norton), a gas station attendant looking out of place wearing a cowboy Stetson and claiming to be newly arrived from South Dakota. The overly courteous cowboy, impervious to slights, lives by himself in a seedy motel. When the bored Tobe invites him to join the group at the beach, Harlan quits his job to go for the first time to a beach. Digging his cowboy appeal, they soon date. When Tobe’s old man takes one look at Harlan, he hates him on first sight as he reminds him of the criminal misfits he supervises and rightfully tries to breakup this unsuitable romantic tryst.

Harlan soon shows his dangerous wacko side and steals a white horse from a rancher (Bruce Dern) and brings his lover along for the out-of-place Old West ride on horseback into the southern California suburban hills, that takes them past housing projects as they are on-the-run from a posse.

It never held my full attention, was poorly paced, its intended allegory was badly muddled, and it seemed to be more an acting exercise for the versatile Norton than a well-thought out pic. Though it offers reminders of such classics as “The Night of the Hunter” and “Taxi Driver,” it never held its own. By the end it reveals it doesn’t have much to say about its main character (or for that matter, much else).


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”