So few films take you on a journey where the destination is unknown. Down In The Valley has the freedom to roam. The characters aren't cut-outs; they are people you need to get to know: flawed and multi-faceted and enthralling. You cannot second guess where they, or the story, will go.
Some viewers will be befuddled by this picture - turned off by the story's left turns (which do slow momentum in the final half hour). It's not easily digestible, but it's definitely worth chewing over.
Norton's performance is more impressive than it's possible to explain in a review, for fear of spoiling the film's surprises. Suffice to say, however ambiguous the character is, however surreal some scenes, the Fight Club star maintains a sense of lonely humanity behind the Stetson and awww-shucks demeanor. "This is no way to treat a person," shouts Harlan in a third-act culture clash - and you feel his desolation. But that's not to say there isn't humour in the story, too. Sitting in the back of a police car, squishing his features and eyeing the heavens, Harlan is a picture of wry resignation. Like Paul Newman wearing a Stan Laurel expression; Hud in another fine mess.
His relationship with Tobe (Wood) is beguiling. A precocious teen, she falls for a romantic hick whose quaint turn of phrase (of the sea: "Man, that's about as close to forever as I can imagine") and old-fashioned manner stand in contrast to the coarse tongue and explosive temper of her father (Morse). He's a prison officer both decent and brutish, explaining to Culkin, "America is tough on the meek" and unwilling, or unable, to provide the comfort his timid son finds in Harlan.
The film explores what it means to be a man; how we can find our way in a spiritual void. Harlan takes his values from a romanticised Old West, from the myths and maybes of Hollywood's frontier. Wade knows the grubby reality of violence, but is still hostage to his nature. Both seek absolutes and simplicity; both know impotent rage and sorrow; both need to experience grace. There's something wonderful about Harlan, something to love and something to fear. He is lost and alone and let down by modern life - riding through landscapes where Man's freeways and cars scar but can't conceal natural beauty. In an age where people apparently prefer simple lies to complicated truths, where a self-styled cowboy is leader of the free world, Down In The Valley is vital and engaging: a journey you need to take.
Thoughtful, odd and haunting, David Jacobson's vision of delinquency and dislocation in the modern West will linger with you long after viewing.
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