Review: Down in the Valley B+

A Film Review By Stefan Vlahov

I think Edward Norton just sky-rocketed to the top of my best actors ever list. Norton’s career has consisted of many supporting roles, in which he simply didn’t stand-out, but every rare time Norton has been given the main role in a film, he has blown people away. Whether it’s Woody Allen’s Everyone Says I Love You – Norton’s first lead role, or Spike Lee’s 25th Hour – Norton’s last before Down in the Valley, there hasn’t been a bad performance to be found. Norotn has slowly become one of the most beloved actors working these days, because of his consistency, so his recent acting drought has made me easier to appreciate this film even more. I’m just happy to be watching Norton on screen again.

Reportedly writer/director David Jacobson’s original script wasn’t up to Norton’s picky taste, so Jacobson allowed Norton to change it as long as he starred in his film. So Norton and jacobson worked together to create this weird film. It’s weird both in structure and in genre. In fact, it’s hard to tell what genre this film belongs to, because it contains up to three of them. There is the drama part which is the primary one, but it’s also a thriller, a romance, and a western. This mix-up of genres makes the film more intriguing and it does widen it’s potential audience completely. Of course, the mix-up might also be owed to Jacobson and Norton being confused about where to go next. Whatever it is, it has a positive effect.

Down in the Valley is about a man (Norton) who believes he’s a cowboy (even though he’s really not) who becomes smitten with a local girl Tobe (Evan Rachel Wood) and starts going out with her. Tobe has to hide her relationship from her dad (David Morse) who is really protective of her and if he finds out she is going out with a much older and maybe even a crazy man, he definitely won’t be happy. Those are the first 50 minutes of the film and while the plot might not sound like much, it’s the quirks in Norton’s character that make this one of the most unique ways of tackling a younger woman – older man relationship in quite some time. Until now David jacobson keeps the film really involving and grounded (or as grounded as this type of film can be), but he soon goes for the twist in the story and he does it in full force.

Afterthe terrible and life-changing thing has happened, though, instead of Jacobson making this a fast-paced film with thriller elements, he opts to slow things down considerably. He lets both his characters and his audience ponder what might happen, and while the hints are frequent they are not intrusive. When the emotional ending finally comes, it’s not mainpulative, but will definitely make people sad. Jacobson knows what he wants and he wants his message to hit home. This film is after all, about themes and messages, not about the characters. The characters, and even the plot, act as instruments of Jacobson’s cause. the themes included here are way too complicated to be summarized in a word or two. There is the theme of unpredictability, of human nature, of carelessness. All these messages are sent with an emotion and the film frequently makes us want to pity these characters, and it succeeds.

To create such troubled characters is a really difficult thing, not only on script, but on the screen. Edward Norton though, amazes in his performance. He is appropriately one-note when he needs to be and over-the-top when it’s called for. His delivery is good and there isn’t a hitch in his performance, in fact I can’t think of a better actor who can play a confused cowboy. Evan rachel Wood was my favorite part of the film though. Her charisma and her brave desicion as an actress to participate in some more sexual scenes are both on display. She is of course, also really beautiful and when that beautiful face of hers shows any emotion, it brings tears to my eyes. David Morse is great tooo and so i Rory Culkin as Tobe’s brother Lonnie. Although it does seem that Culkin always acts the same in recent films, but as long as it’s good, that’s forgiveable. Also, look for Bruce Dern in one of the best cameos so far this year. All I could say was – wow!

Technically this film stands above the pack in it’s beauty and it’s deliberate pace. No one here seems to be in a hurry, and the slowness of the film is really relaxing. Cinematographer Enrique Cheiak is let loose here and is given the freedom of shooting as many Californian sceneries as he wants. This is more of a cinematographer’s film then anything else. The origianl score by Peter Salett is definitely original, and it combines wester style music with dramatic themes here and there. it’s also throughout much of the film, which is nice.

Overall, this is a geat film and one that has very few things going against it. If i was to nit=pick here, I might say that I didn’t like the fact that Evan Rachel Wood has as little screentime as she does. She brings something to the screen with her preseence that is really a good thing. Also Jacobson gives a little too many unsubtle hints even before we reach the 20 minute mark, so when the twist comes it might not hit as hard. But still, this film is not aboutthat, it’s about the consequences, and the twist is only a tool used to tell the audience of those consequences.

I felt weird when I walked out of Down in the Valley. On one hand this film was very rewarding and technically sound, but on the other, most of the people I went to see it with hated it. Their arguments – it was boring/sstupid/far-fetched – were ones I was expecting, because the film does rely on a little too much descrepancy on the part of the audience to work. Still, though, it is an appreciable film and one that I won’t soon forget. Plus, it’s a treat for Norton fans.

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