The Plot: On the way to the beach near her San Fernando Valley home with some friends, a rebellious teenage girl named Tobe (Evan Rachel Wood) picks up a young man named Harlan (Edward Norton), who seems to fancy himself something of a modern-day cowboy. Much to the disapproval of Wade (David Morse), her single father, Tobe begins a relationship with the kind, courteous Harlan, who also quickly befriends her impressionable younger brother Lonnie (Rory Culkin). Tobe disregards her father's opinion, as teenagers tend to do, but finds it hard to ignore his wishes after Harlan makes a few stupid mistakes which prompt Wade to forbid him from seeing his daughter altogether. The lovebirds continue to meet in secret, however, until Harlan's careless behavior begins to affect even Tobe's opinion of him. Upset over the possibility of losing of Tobe, Harlan begins to confuse reality with the hollywood western in his mind, but what he quickly discovers is that the laws of the old west don't go over well in modern day Los Angeles.
The Review: Anyone who has read my recent review of the western 3:10 To Yuma should recall my mentioning that Christian Bale has been on the verge of knocking Edward Norton from the top spot on my list of favorite actors for a while now. The truth is that while Bale has been cranking out quality films such as Batman Begins, The Prestige, Rescue Dawn, and 3:10 To Yuma left and right, Norton hasn't had much of a noteworthy presence in any leading man roles lately, the only one of which I've caught being his turn as the title character in The Illusionist. However, just when I think it's all over for Norton, he seemingly slaps me across the face for even considering taking him off of his pedestal with his portrayal of confused urban cowboy Harlan Carruthers in Down In The Valley. The reason that I've always loved Norton as an actor (and much the same reason that I love Bale) is that he can seemingly take on any role, no matter how demanding or unconventional, and completely immerse himself in it to the point that he has transformed almost literally into that character and I never once feel as though he's "acting". And how much more demanding and unconventional can you get than a troubled guy who lives in Los Angeles and honestly believes on some level that he's a genuine cowboy?
The moment that I knew I had to see this film was when I first caught the trailer online and a shot came onscreen of Norton, shirtless in a cheap motel room, brandishing a scowl and a revolver in each outstretched arm. In fact, short of Norton's involvement in Down In The Valley, it is probably a movie that I never would have seen, which is a shame considering some of the other outstanding performances that it contains. First we have Evan Rachel Wood, who I've never seen in a film before, but who has instantly, with this single performance, found a place among the ranks of up-and-coming talents that I intend to keep an eye on. Not only is Wood beautiful, but for being so young (just 17 during the filming of this movie) she demonstrated a range of emotions that had me floored during several scenes. There are scores of actresses in Hollywood who have been acting for years, but who, in my opinion, couldn't hold a candle to Wood. This is a bold statement, but I'd challenge anyone to watch Down In The Valley and disagree with me.
Less impressive than Evan Rachel Wood, but impressive nonetheless, is Rory Culkin as Tobe's younger brother Lonnie. Based on the few films that I've seen the youngest of the Culkin siblings in, it seems that Rory is generally typecast as the shy, quiet kid. His role in Down In The Valley is no exception, but there's no denying that what he does, he does well. In fact, I'd have to say that this was the most impressive performance I've seen from him yet. Finally, we have another in a long line of spot-on performances by David Morse as Tobe and Lonnie's father Wade. For whatever reason, Morse's portrayal of a kind, likable airplane pilot in The Langoliers, which I watched many times in my youth, has stuck with me as the image that pops into my head when I picture his face. However, contrary to those memories, I've found recently with such films as this one and Disturbia that Morse is not only capable of, but pretty darn good at, playing imposing, menacing characters too. For a good portion of Down In The Valley it's not quite clear whether you should be rooting for Wade or Harlan because of the questionable way that Wade treats his children, and David Morse's intense glare and large stature make for some very tense scenes. Overall the casting of this film was without exception, perfect.
To attract such a well-rounded and capable cast to an admittedly odd, genre-bending independent film like Down In The Valley takes a little more than a mere paycheck, and the secret ingredient in this case was without a doubt the script by fledgeling writer/director David Jacobson. In my opinion, outside of shameless comedies, effects-driven action films, and unforgiving, sappy dramas (all of which can occasionally strike a chord with the viewer based on built-in reactions and preconceived opinions alone), what it really takes to make a great film is a good core concept. There's something to be said for good writing, good dialogue, good cinematography, et cetera, but before any of those things can begin to sculpt a quality movie-going experience I believe that a good, original idea is (almost) always required. In the case of Down In The Valley, the original and initial concept was the flame at the beginning of a long fuse which set the film down the path to turning into a great script, drawing in great actors to play it's leads, and inevitably becoming a great movie. That singular concept being the character of Harlan Carruthers and all of the intricacies of his personality and psyche which lead the plot of the film down a series of pathways that I never expected going into viewing it, and which turned out to be great fun to watch. Really, what more can you ask for from a movie than that?
The Verdict: An original idea leading to an interesting, new, and unpredictable plot, a collection of wonderful and vibrant performances by extremely talented actors, and a willingness to take some serious chances with his film earn David Jacobson my praise for this movie. My recommendation? Watch Down In The Valley at the earliest possible convenience.