Down in the Valley

Note: Read a new in-depth reappraisal of the film, written in 2021 here.

Director: David Jacobson

Drawing from his own youth spent with his sister in California’s lonely San Fernando Valley in the 60’s and 70’s, writer/director David Jacobson takes a twisted and fantastical approach to the classic western genre by infusing his screenplay with the overwhelming psychological air of modern isolation and subsequent quest for escapism in contemporary society. Evan Rachel Wood, the startlingly talented young actress from Thirteen, is excellent and understated as Tobe, a seventeen year old girl who lives with her equally lost thirteen year old brother (Rory Culkin) and surrogate father David Morse, their police officer guardian. When faced with the boredom of Spring Break, Tobe impulsively sets her sights on the peculiarly charming cowboy drifter Harlan Fairfax Carruthers, played by the film’s co-producer Edward Norton in one of his best roles since Fight Club and American History X. While initially Harlan provides a fun diversion and adventurous escape for Tobe and her brother, soon they realize that his out-of-time persona and possibly delusional fantasies have crossed the line from amusing to dangerous as he gets more obsessive and frightening. Norton channels this remarkably beginning the film as a sort of innocently polite Jimmy Stewart-like cowboy who, as the film continues, morphs subtly into Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle or even Robert Mitchum in Night of the Hunter. This beautifully photographed, fully realized character piece is moody, atmospheric and true, cutting right to the bone. Down in the Valley is a riveting depiction of the angst and isolation of growing up and while it does get overly long in the rambling last forty-five minutes, the film feels like a product of the 70’s era that inspired Jacobson in that character and psychological motivation are what keeps us in our seats instead of flashy computer generated effects. In the words of Edward Norton, who appears in a fascinating interview with Jacobson on the film’s DVD, the only reason to evoke the mythical genre of the western once again is if you as an audience member can relate to the story and in Down in the Valley, they’ve definitely succeeded.