David Jacobson's Down in the Valley begins with seductive compositions that recall the cinema of the 1970s, with wide-screen compositions of sun-baked, hot-hot Southern California landscapes, smog-choked cars packed onto scorched highways and an image of a teen girl in cut-off shorts and a halter top smoking a cigarette. But before David Jacobson's film is over, it's clear that he has another set of film references on his mind: the western.
As in most westerns, an enigmatic man rides into town. In this case it's Harlan Carruthers, a cowboy hat-wearing weirdo (played by Ed Norton) who pumps gas on the side of a highway. Painfully earnest and accidentally funny, Harlan is irresistible to a group of bored teens who have stopped for a fill-up on the way to the beach.
Particularly drawn to Harlan is Tobe (played by Evan Rachel Wood), a beautiful but restless teenager who lives with her timid younger brother Lonnie and her gruff but loving cop-father. It's clear from the film's opening scenes between Tobe and her father that their filial relationship is in crisis. Daddy's little girl has become a sexual creature, and her father is having trouble accepting it. On the fateful morning that opens the film, Tobe flounces out of the house in a skimpy bikini while her apoplectic father gapes after her.
It's not exactly clear why Tobe is drawn to Harlan--that she is provides the only justification sexual attraction requires. Harlan is a man cut off from the open range, a man living in the wrong century. But he's possessed of more than a wistful longing. He actually believes he can help himself to a horse in the community's suburban outskirts and take a joy ride. More ominously, he's a fearfully dead shot with a vintage 1917 single action Colt Peacemaker. The role requires Norton to shed the obvious intelligence that the actor typically brings to his parts. Harlan seems to have been conceived as one part John Wayne and one part Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver (Jacobson's borrowings from this film are extensive--there's even a long sequence of Harlan talking tough to himself in the mirror).
While Norton is painfully and, finally, dangerously sincere as he courts Tobe, Wood finally comes into her own in what will doubtlessly be one of her last child roles. Wood, who was born in Raleigh in 1987 and has been acting professionally for most of her life, has made a specialty of playing hard-bitten, sexually precocious characters. Up 'til now, I've been more put off than moved by her characters, such as her angry, sexually and pharmaceutically adventurous teen in Thirteen and her manipulative sociopath in Pretty Persuasion. Even in a smaller role in the Ron Howard western The Missing, she seemed to radiate hostility. Her career trajectory was starting to look like Jodie Foster's, had she played variants on her Taxi Driver child prostitute for several films running.
But given the revelatory performance she delivers in Down in the Valley, one is inclined to give her credit for her past indie fearlessness--she's yet to appear in the teen fluff that makes stars of Anne Hathaway, Mandy Moore and Hilary Duff. As the girl-woman Tobe, Wood brings warmth and vulnerability to an angry, rebellious character. It's crucial to the story that Tobe make the emotional journey from adolescence to adulthood that Harlan can not, and Wood pulls it off in a sensitive, subtle and bracing performance.
Down in the Valley is, for the most part, a successful film. After the top-notch lead performances, the principal cast is rounded out with excellent turns by David Morse as Tobe's father, and Rory Culkin as her brother. Peter Salett's original songs, while consistently down-tempo, evoke the druggy, overheated ambience, as do the welcome tranced-out vocals of Hope Sandoval and Mazzy Star. Cinematographer Enrique Chediak provides the most luminously retro images since Tim Orr's work with David Gordon Green in films like All the Real Girls. In particular, two photographic sequences are powerful and original--one is a hallucinatory conversation between Harlan and Tobe in a bathtub, and another is a nighttime scene on a hillside, with a frightened Culkin caught in the line of fire holding a torch.
But, what may keep viewers from responding fully to the film is a sluggish finale that betrays a faint trace of the academicism of Peter Bogdanovich (The Last Picture Show, Paper Moon). Jacobson is clearly trying to adapt the tropes of the western with the realities of modern suburban sprawl. Ironies abound: Harlan doesn't own a car, yet he's forced to work in a gas station. His repeated references to "down in the valley" are the words that the cowpokes of yore might have used to describe their own infrequent encounters with normal civilized life. Like Jacobson, I'm a fan of classic westerns by John Ford and Howard Hawks, but even for me the film's ironic juxtaposition of Monument Valley and San Fernando Valley is, at times, overbearing. I could have done without the film's final confrontation, which begins on the set of a Hollywood western town and ends in a prefab suburban home, with the symbolic white horse trapped inside a garage.
While the film clearly has been laid out with painstaking care, Jacobson has the same advantage Bogdanovich did in his early films: A strong cast, led by a couple of rugged men and a beautiful and--in the case of Down in the Valley--talented young actress.