Thursday, May 18, 2006

TRH Movie - Down In The Valley

Last night I went to go see Down in the Valley for Chart magazine. It's not a great freelance gig (means I get a byline and not much else) but I like writing the reviews because it means I get to see movies I want to watch but don't necessarily want to pay the full price of admission for.

Down in the Valley is a perfect example. From the trailer, it looks like an interesting little indie film about a love affair with a modern-day cowboy (Ed Norton) and a teenage girl (Evan Rachel Wood). These are my favourite kinds of movies, little indies with brooding characters, good dialogue and that push the boundaries of genres. I had high expectations. Once again, I should learn that whenever I expect anything, it usually turns out all wrong.

Oh, so, very, very wrong. First of all, all the marketing blah-blah calls the film a modern day Western. But it's not really. Well, if, by Western you mean that Ed Norton dresses up in cowboy gear, plays with guns and drawls, well, yes, then it would qualify. But for something to be a Western in my books it needs to a) take place somewhere other than suburban Los Angeles, preferably somewhere with rolling fields and bleak landscapes and b) have a solid sense of right and wrong, with one party being "wronged" and going about with very heavy hands to "right" the situation. Anyone seen Deadwood lately? Now that's a modern interpretation of the Western.

The giant "wrong" that takes place in this film? Ed Norton's love interest, the very young and very attractive Evan Rachel Wood (and don't even get me started on the rumours the two of them are actually a couple in real life), has a father who doesn't think it's a good idea for them to see each other. Which, you know, isn't all that shocking considering Ed's just about twice her age. No one says anything about that though—not her friends, not her father, in fact, the only mention of the glaring age gap comes from Tobe's (Evan Rachel Wood, short for "October", wha?) brother who asks upon meeting Harlan (Ed Norton): "Are you a friend of my father's?"

Annywaay. The film progresses. They fall in love. They speak stupid dialogue to one another ("Is this your true heart talking"? I'm shocked the computer didn't barf up a couple of vowels after he typed that one) and they have a lot of smarmy sex in a dirty, gross bathtub. Nothing says romance like that my friends, nothing.

Soon, the true nature of Harlan's character starts to emerge. Now, there are spoilers here, so if you have any interest in the movie, don't read any further. Seriously. Stop right now. Okay, I'll give it to you straight: Harlan's nuts. He's not a ranch hand, he didn't grow up in North Dakota and his accent's totally fake (well, we never find that out for sure but he's from Chino people). He invents this cowboy persona because he wants to live in time when men were men and they slept outside under the stars.

By the time Tobe figures out he's a few logs short of a cabin, it's too late and a tragic accident happens. Toss in the fact that he essentially kidnaps Tobe's brother Lonnie and therein lies the "Western" part of this film. They take off into the canyons on horseback, chow down on rabbit, and camp out in a film set (appropriately an old West film set, ahem, the irony, it kills). The whole thing ends tragically in a new suburb somewhere just outside of the city, guns are popped, people are shot, tears are shed, the works.

And you know, the film had potential. It really did. It just doesn't get there. It's too much of a hodgepodge of obvious influences (Harlan's cowboy Taxi Driver routine gets tired the first of the twenty times we see it). There are a couple of interesting shots, one set on a tree swing in particular, but for the most part it's all imbued with so much metaphor and meaning (how many shots of the highway does one movie need—not this many, I tell you, not this many!) that it's heavy handed and painful to watch. The dialogue is soap-operatic where it means to be philosophical and it's a huge waste of meteoric talent. The real shame? There are few things on a hot summer afternoon better than a shot of Ed Norton's stomach, sweat glistening off his tanned torso, blue eyes twinkling in the sunlight. It's just too bad they're all stuck in this ridiculous little movie because that's something that I'd watch all day any day.


Anonymous said...

I don't like your review. I think you approached the movie too logically. And as far as westerns go, there is no west anymore. Just the burbs. That's what Harlan/Martin struggles with.

Sydney said...

I agree with the previous comment. The fact that this "Modern Western" was set in the L.A. suburbs is significant; all those shots of highways replace the vast desolate wide prairie views of traditional westerns for a reason. Norton is portraying a man holding on to the idea of the old west, of a world that men are a part of, where there is honour, and men have respect for each other. There is no right and wrong in this movie because there is no certain right and wrong in our modern world, and that is why Harlan is seen as insane. Harlan is all of the Western in this movie, and that is not something negative in need of correction, it is symbolic. The romance and ideals of the old West don't exist today, only existing in the minds of the insane. This is appropriately heralded as a modern Western, acknowledging the unfortunate inappropriateness of a concept of such an ideal world in the one we live in.

Anonymous said...

I agree with your review. The story is not really very interesting. And the implied yet never spoken age deal is so dumb. The first sex scene was pretty well done. Good fake orgasmos. Overall just a lame movie though. I expected better from Ed Norton.