Down in the Valley (2005): David Jacobson’s Follow-Up to Dahmer, Starring Edward Norton

Cannes Film Fest 2005–Vastly uneven, David Jacobson’s “Down in the Valley” is an intriguing but severely flawed film that needs to go back to the editing room if it stands any chance of playing theatrically and appealing to audiences.

World premiere in Cannes, in the Certain Regard section, got mixed-to-negative response, and same reaction is to be expected when it opens the Los Angeles Film Festival.

Writer-director Jacobson, who previously made the underestimated, little-seen low-budgeter “Dahmer,” sets his goals high, which is good for an aspiring filmmaker. But structurally the film is a mess, an overlong mess; it needs to lose at least 20 minutes. “Down in the Valley” is marred by plot holes, rough transitions, references to events that don’t exist in the current version. Carelessly rushed into Cannes, the print enlists in the credits Ellen Burstyn, though she is nowhere to be seen in the movie. What makes this wretched movie watchable is the high-caliber acting of Edward Norton (who’s also the producer) and Evan Rachel Wood, as the central romantic couple.

Clearly, Jacobson is a cinephile director who has seen (too) many films. “Down in the Valley” is inspired by (and pays tribute to) the Westerns of John Ford and Howard Hawks, as well as to the modern reincarnations of these directors’ works, specifically Sam Shepard’s plays and screenplays (“Paris, Texas” and “Don’t Come Knocking,” which also showed in Cannes), Peter Bogdanovich’s “The Last Picture Show,” and others.

Like other directors of his generation, such as Paul Thomas Anderson and Alexander Payne (who are more skillful), Jacobson wants to resurrect the American cinema of the 1970s that was character-driven, downbeat in tone, personal in voice, and contemplative in mood. The casting of the secondary roles is also influenced by Jacobson’s infatuation with 1970s movies. Bruce Dern, who appeared in many quintessential films of that decade, plays Charlie, and, as noted, another 1970s actress, Ellen Burstyn, must have played a part that ended on the editing room floor.

Working with the paradigm of the outsider, here in the character of a charismatic and dangerous drifter, Jacobson draws a portrait of a family whose members are affected by the presence of an unscrupulous modern-day cowboy. In its good parts, “Down in the Valley” is a deconstruction of the American West, or, more accurately, the myth of the American West, as it continues to influence modern-day America, including suburban Los Angeles.

Though he has made only two films (“Criminal” and “Dahmer”), Jacobson is already beginning to repeat himself. He seems to be drawn to outsiders and misfits who are either downright criminals or are unable to fit into the mores of ordinary existence.

In a role that pays tribute to John Garfield, Paul Newman (specifically “Hud”), James Dean, and Jack Nicholson, Norton plays Harlan Caruthers (whom everyone calls Tex), an immoral and amoral hedonistic cowboy. Harlan drifts into town in classic Western style, with only a few possessions, sporting a weathered Stetson, snap-button shirt, and blue jeans.

Story kicks off when a young beautiful girl named Tobe (Wood), short for October, stops for gas at the station where Harlan works on her way to the beach with friends. After exchanging one look with Harlan, Tobe invites him along for the ride. Contemptuous of his job, he grabs the opportunity.

Though he is twice her age, a romance of sorts develops, much to the indignation of Tobe’s sheriff father, Wade (David Morse), who’s raising her and younger son Lonnie (Rory Culkin) by himself. Harlan takes special liking to the shy Lonnie and gives him some shooting lessons. The relationship between them recalls that of Paul Newman and Brandon De Wilde in “Hud.”

In one of the film’s most lyrical images, Harlan takes Tobe to a romantic ride on a horse “borrowed” from his friend Charlie (Bruce Dern). Harlan then acts out the part of a movie cowboy, holding two guns, in front of his motel room mirror, in a clear imitation of Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle in “Taxi Driver,” another seminal 1970s work that must have influenced Jacobson.

Is Harlan delusional Does he believe in the possibility of reenacting the myth of the Old West in the plains of San Fernando Or is he mentally disturbed and morally irresponsible For a while, the director keeps us guessing.

Harlan’s constructed reality begins to shatter, when Charlie reports to the police the theft of his horse. From the start, Wade suspects that Harlan’s stories about his past, as a South Dakota rancher, might not be true. But it takes too long for the vulnerable and love-struck Tobe to wake up from her dreamy state of mind and begin questioning the validity of Harlan’s tales.

Appearances deceive, and Harlan turns out to be more complex and troubled than he seemed to be. But either Jacobson doesn’t believe in psychological motivation, or he hasn’t figured out who Harlan is, for he offers few insights about how Harlan turned out to be the man he is. The flashback, which describes Harlan’s past, is intrusive, unconvincing, and overly long.

At first, it might seem incongruous for the story to be set in the San Fernando Valley, which may function here as one of the last vestiges of the Western frontier. “Down in the Valley,” like most of Sam Shepard’s and Larry McMurtry’s work, explores the enduring appeal of the cowboy as a rebellious archetype in American culture at a time when the West has all but vanished and is now replaced with Suburbia’s impersonal strip malls.

The first reel, which describes the relationship between Harlan and Lolita-like Tobe, is full of promises. The romantic and seduction scenes bear resemblance to those between Treat Williams and the young Laura Dern in “Smooth Talk.” “Down in the Valley” has a sleazy and dangerous streak, but Jacobson can’t decide whether to focus on the lurid relationship or the existential side of his exploration. Here is a movie that could have been more darkly mysterious than ponderously pretentious.

Ultimately, “Down in the Valley” is too much of a conceptual film, perhaps a result of the fact that Jacobson wrote the screenplay over a long period of time. By his own admission, various films shown in Paris while he was working on the script have helped shape the narrative. Offering iconographic elements of the Old West, as seen in “Red River,” “My Darling Clementine,” and other Ford and Hawks Westerns, the film contains all the ingredients of a modern Western story, except that they don’t jell into a coherent whole.

As for the internal family dynamics, Jacobson doesn’t explain the causes of Tobe’s rebellion against her father. Is it just the usual intergenerational strife of parents and children. This aspect could be a result of Jacobson being mentored by Stuart Stern, writer of the James Dean vehicle, “Rebel Without a Cause,” while at the Sundance Film Institute.

The sheriff’s character is half-baked at worst and clichd at best. Clueless about how to deal with his daughter and son, he comes across as a bigot. He delivers a contemptuous speech about the “meek.” In a later scene, despite being a law officer, he points a gun at Harlan in front of son Lonnie!

Angry, Harlan commits a crime and persuades Lonnie to escape with him on horseback into the hills above the Valley. The sheriff heads after the outlaw for a shootout, which is set on a Western movie set replete with extras in period costumes. The sentimental ending is problematic and unearned, stressing the strenuous credibility of the text.

Norton gives as strong performance, projecting the kind of raw sexuality and volatile temper evident in his earlier roles, such as “American History X.” Evan Rachel Wood, who currently can be seen in the much better “Pretty Persuasion,” is also effective as a young woman conflicted by the pull-and-push forces of sexual desire and romantic vulnerability. As an old temperamental coot, the misdirected Dern, gives an over-the- top performance that makes his character even less likable.

In moments, the film boasts visual splendor. Assisted by Enrique Chediak’s anamorphic widescreen lensing and Franco Carbone’s production design, “Down in the Valley” evokes the myth of Old West as it might exist, of all places, around the sprawling San Fernando Valley.