December 21, 2006 -- “Down in the Valley” is a dark modern day western about a young woman, Tobe (Evan Rachel Wood of “The Upside of Anger”) who is attracted to Harlan (Edward Norton of “The Italian Job”) a drifter twice her age. Despite the dire warnings of her father, Wade (David Morse of “Proof of Life”) Tobe and her brother, Lonnie (Rory Culkin of “Signs”) become involved with Harlan and become the object of his dangerous delusions. The character of Harlan is reminiscent of Jeffrey Dahmer, the subject of an earlier film by director David Jacobson. Harlan is friendly and charming on the surface, but the surface turns out to be a carefully constructed facade which bears little resemblance to the man under the surface.
Harlan is like a child in some ways. He plays fantasy games by himself and he imagines himself to be an old style western hero. He adheres to the old cowboy ideal of independence and he refuses to be pushed around by anyone. His idea of heroism is to “protect” Tobe and Lonnie from their father by taking them away from their home. He seems to have no fear of death and has a hair-trigger temper. He is also a pathological liar. He lies to himself as much as anyone else. Tobe and Lonnie have no idea who they are getting involved with.
The film works as a cautionary tale about the dangers of casual sex, or even casual friendships with strangers. Tobe and Lonnie have led a sheltered life and have no clue about the dangers lurking behind the friendly face and seeming innocence of Harlan. The film is heavy with western themes. We see a number of images of Harlan riding a horse against a background of high sky. Skylines are taken advantage of in the cinematography by Enrique Chediak (“The Good Girl”). This is part of the seduction of Harlan's cowboy mystique. There are also a number of scenes in which Harlan is seen riding his horse in more urban landscapes. This shows how out of place Harlan is in the valley. He is much more at home in the hills and on the skylines.
Acting is superb by all the main characters. The film also does a good job of fleshing out all the characters, even Wade. In most films a parent like Wade might get lost in the shuffle. In this film, Wade is a complex character with his own unique strengths and faults. It is also interesting how Harlan takes advantage of Wade's strictness with his children to drive a wedge between them and their father. Harlan is one of the best villains I have seen this year. He is very dangerous without actually seeming to be evil at all. He seems quite innocent until he starts shooting people. It is a marvelously well-written character played perfectly by Norton. Also appearing in the film is Bruce Dern of “Monster” as a rancher. This film rates a B.
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