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I’m not quite sure exactly how I felt about Down in the Valley. At many times I thought it was a gorgeous film, shot perfectly, but at others I felt uncomfortable and shocked. We are given a love story between a troubled young man and a high school girl trapped in a family that could self-destruct at any moment. These two have been on a journey to find themselves, and in each other’s kindred spirits finds another to help steer them onto the right course. However, a relationship like this cannot last. Whether or not you throw in the hot-tempered father, the shy brother lacking in gumption, or the voice inside our lead’s head, the tale is one ripe for tragedy. I guess that means it all hinges on the story that gets you from the beginning to the end and whether it is one that was worth the journey. Despite the numerous moments that seemed out of place, and those that stirred discomfort, I will have to conclude that the path is ultimately one I’m glad I took. The great moments were a sight to behold and the tough ones did their job because I still can’t shake them.

If nothing else, the acting is top-notch. Evan Rachel Wood is truly amazing for a girl her age. From the little girl in Digging to China, to the rebellious teen in Thirteen, I can’t believe how poised she is in all she does. Whereas someone like Anna Paquin fell off the map, as she got older, I think Wood will be around for quite awhile, and I can’t wait for Across the Universe later this year. In this film, she encompasses the role of a young woman trying to break free from her stifling yet loose family life into a relationship that is too much for someone of her maturity to completely understand. When she slowly realizes what she is a part of, it is too late, and her mixture of fear with the love she still holds is heartbreaking. David Morse also brings a brilliant performance to the table. A long time character actor, he plays the formidable, sheriff type well, yet has the emotional range to portray the compassion he has underneath the rough exterior. His role is a man that is doing his best, but only when tragedy strikes does he realize how much love he has to give. Rory Culkin rounds out the supporting cast showing nice restraint in a confused young boy unable to differentiate good from bad as the good does what seems bad in order to protect and the bad puts on the façade of good to win him over.

In the end, the real force of the movie is Edward Norton. It’s good to see that after his little hiatus from acting, he has come back better than ever. His character Harlan is a complex man with a past that has made him regress into the age of chivalrous western ranches. You can see it in his eyes that the world wronged him in some way and he needed to become a part of a moment in time where people mattered and not material objects. When he ends up in an old west film set and watches the extras dancing and enjoying life in its bear form, the ecstatic look on his face shows it all. Harlan doesn’t know who he is and the love of this very young girl puts him into a world that threatens the façade he has worked hard to build. The drugs and the selfishness and the pain wreak havoc on his mind and he begins to let his past anger rise back to the surface. Every moment as he continues on his journey is true to him; when he changes reality to suit his survival, he believes every word he is saying. Something is broken in him, and no one could have portrayed it better than Norton.

I do think, though, that the acting is too good for the film. Morse and Norton are so effective in showing the dual nature of their characters that you end up feeling cheated never finding out what happened in their lives to get them to the points they are at when we are introduced to them. The script never allows us to see any of the characters’ motivations, only the slice of life we are shown on screen. Is Harlan the son of a Rabbi? just a troubled youth with a criminal record? both? and if so what happened to make him try and forget it all? These are questions that the movie makes you ask, but never gives any answers to. To have a beautifully shot scene of Norton and Wood out in the country with a wonderful transition sequence involving a swing-set and then at the end progress to an outlaw gunfight chase is all at once jarring and effective, and yet insufficiently explained. These characters are so complex, I just wish the film did more to help us understand them all rather than just show us what happens when their cultures clash in the game of love. Definitely worth a look, but ultimately an underachieving film that had the makings for greatness.

Down in the Valley 7/10

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photography:
[1] Evan Rachel Wood as Tobe and Edward Norton as Harlan in Down in the Valley.
[2] David Morse as Wade in director David Jacobson’s, Down in the Valley. Distributed by THINKFilm

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