Down in the Valley

Year 2006

Edward Norton as  Harlan
Evan Rachel Wood   as Toby
David Morse as Wade
Rory Culkin as Lonnie
Director - David Jacobson
Screenwriter - David Jacobson  

This movie tries to say that life is confusing. News flash! Life is confusing! In fact, renaming life "Confusion" with a capital "C" wouldn't be out of line.

The basic plot of the movie is that a thirty-something bumpkin takes on the role of a pseudo-surrogate father to two teens. Only this guy has issues. Just what these issue are is never fully explored, but they're there. Maybe this guy is a mental deficient? Maybe he led a traumatized life? Maybe, like in Fight Club the problems of Edward Norton's character Harlan stem from an absentee father.

Whatever the reason, Harlan is damaged. One of the effects of this is that he fails to see any conquences of his actions.

As he was in Fight Club, Edward Norton once more is a man missing a full suit in the deck of life. Unlike Fight Club this movie is not a work of art.

I don't know about you, but I'm tired of seeing Edward Norton, scrawny little pipsqueek Edward Norton, in tough guy roles like that one in the deplorable MTV does racism cause they're edgy American History X. What next? When enraged, the Hulk changes into Edward Norton to become more powerful?

Before I rail against the movie, let me tell you about its good points. There are a number of them. The first is the saving grace for the movie. It's the pacing. It's slow and building. Nearly every scene is allowed to play out in real-time rather than movie-time. It affected me, the viewer. On the one hand, I wanted the movie to get to the point already! But on the other hand, most of the scenes were needed to understand unfolding events.

The events within the movie do unfold and follow from each other. The downside is that each of the characters seems to have come into existence at the start of the movie. It's nice to have everything explained during the course of normal conversation, but the writer barely makes use of the technique. More on this later when I start ranting.

There are a number of really nice scenes in the movie that set up the personalities of the characters. Most of these scenes involve Edward Norton in one-man shows. For example, he pushes a donut hole into a donut while waiting for his girl. In another, he plays at being a cowboy the way a ten year old would, hiding behind furniture, sneaking up on the bad men, trying out quips, and the like. Only he's an adult using real guns. The final scene, where ashes are scattered in the wind, is a nice scene without Edward Norton in it, although it reminded me too much of The Big Lebowski and I was watching the direction of the wind as much as I was listening to the conversation.

The acting is always good. Evan Rachel Wood nailed the Tobe character. Sometimes teenage girls can't play teenage girls but in this case Evan Rachel Wood excelled. Name a movie where David Morse had a bad performance? Never. This one called for a lot of quick mood swings that made little sense, but David Morse made everything believable. Bruce Dern had a small but effective role. After seeing him in Last Man Standing I thought he was too elitest to be anything but over the top. In this movie, he's still wacky Bruce Dern, but he makes his interpretation fit the character.

As a side note, I like the old crazies like Bruce Dern, Harry Dean Stanton, and Ernest Borgnine. Other members of the School of Dementia like Dennis Hopper and Jack Elam have passed on so let's see more of the ones that are left! (On as sad note, Ernest Borgnine recently passed away.)

What's wrong with this picture? Plenty.

Let's start with the warning on the cover. It says R due to, "violence, sexual content, and drug use."

"Sexual content?" How about rape? Statuatory rape that is. Harlan has sex with an underage Tobe. At no point is the fact that this is illegal even hinted at. If you say, "But they were consenting adults." then I'll say, "She was underage! She's was NOT an adult!" Maybe it's because I have girls, but this bothers me tremendously.

There's a word being used to refer to older men who chase younger girls. The word is "creeper". Harlan is a creeper. I don't care how retarded, yes the "R word" that's costing us millions in taxes to expunge from laws, Harlan is. Having sex with a minor is a felony! Would you buy a child booze because they asked you to? Of course not. So, an adult should not have sex with a minor either even if they ask.

That this isn't even brought up stuns me. There's one scene where Tobe's maybe father/guardian tells Harlan to leave. He threatens Harlan with a gun. Threaten him with jail time! Say, "Hey creeper, you're too old for her. See her again and I'll have you arrested for trespassing and contributing to the delinquency of a minor!" Maybe there's a bit of denial going on concerning the physical aspects of the relationship, but trespassing and contributing to the delinquency of a minor would still work.

What else is wrong? How about some of the scene selections? Was that a shot of a weed? Why? How about that tree that's half blocking a sign? Why? The director/writer likes nature I guess. But it's like watching home movies of someone's trip to a botanical garden. Fortunately, these inexplicable shots don't occur often. Unfortunately, they occur often enough to take you out of the movie because you're saying, "What was that about?" when you should be being carried along by a moment.

What are the relationships between the head of the household and the two children? They say that are brother and sister but they don't look a bit alike. Are they half-brother and sister? Maybe. There's something about the father not really being the father. He's more of a foster father for the children whose mother, his ex-wife, abandoned. Is neither of the children his? Who knows?

The way he treats the children, they were probably foundlings. He's either pushing one of them around or ignoring them. I suppose it's supposed to show why the children leap at the chance to be treated as human beings by Harlan, but it's too forced. Especially when the father suddenly decides to move heaven and earth to retrieve the boy Lonnie. Where did that come from? One minute the kid is a throw rug and the next he's a beloved son. Where's the sign of this prior to the big boyhunt?

On different levels, this affects the whole film. The writer loved individual scenes so much that whether they helped the composition of the whole movie seemed immaterial. Rather than show two people talking on a beach or going swimming or basking in statuatory rape's sweet afterglow, let's do some character background anecdotes. Why would Tobe fall for a creeper? What's up with Lonnie's near catatonic outlook? Why is Harlan so messed up? What happened to the children's mother? Who's the woman the father is hanging out with?

My opinion is that the writer chose subjects and moments he witnessed but never understood and decided they looked nice enough to put into a movie.

Something else the movie is really blithe about is death. Two people die in the movie and are never mentioned again. Or maybe they didn't die. Who knows? As a viewer, I'd like to. But, to make Harlan sympathetic (yeah, right) his kills are dismissed. "You didn't kill anybody!" he's told at one point. I'm thinking, "What about the one guy? Is he not dead, then? Or is it a big black lie to pander to the need to have Edward Norton's character be a tragic hero?"

Then, I made the mistake of watching something called "The Filmmaker and Actor Q&A". The writer/director could have played the female lead. No wonder his view of the world missed its mark. He apparently didn't understand his subjects.

Another telling item in the Q&A was the fact that Edward Norton helped rewrite the script. No wonder his scenes did nothing to move the plot along. They were set-pieces to allow him to show the world what a really good actor he thinks he is. That's why he was filmed filling a donut hole with the outer cake.

And the "interviewer" Peter Towers nearly peed his pants with fanboy worship during the Q&A. Peter Towers is one of the reasons "Rolling Stone" magazine has lost its limited credibility. This fruitcake (as in "nutty as a") cannot possibly speak for me or most of the people I know.

In summary, this movie attempts to be a work of art by creating deep characters. It fails in this regard. It does have excellent, anxiety inducing pacing and a few nice scenes. For these last reasons, it's not that bad of a movie. What ultimately kills this movie are the oversized egos of the writer/director and Edward Norton. Other daggers that slowed down the creature before it died included a lack of understanding of life outside of an ivory tower. This by-proxy interpretation of life permeates every scene.

Other assailants included a rip-off of the "Taxi Driver" mirror scene and a night on the town that had been edited to be something other than a sequence of events.

Chick flick potential? I hate to say it, but probably. But only if the woman thinks that men need to be more sensitive and become slightly less murderous versions of Harlan. I wouldn't recommend it as a date movie unless both you and your date are of the same gender.

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