A David Morse Reappraisal: Down in the Valley (2005)


For my latest DVD Netflix actor's spotlight article, I chose five outstanding performances by character actor David Morse. One of the films I analyzed for the piece was this 2005 sleeper but unfortunately, the independent film studio went bust and the DVD is no longer in production or available to rent from Netflix. However, as of this post, "Down in the Valley" is available to stream from a variety of services (check the site/app Just Watch for current details) so I wanted to share this reevaluation of the film here for you today. 

"Down in the Valley"

Writer-director David Jacobson's “Down in the Valley” is as eerily dark yet disarmingly gentle as the potentially dangerous modern-day drifter cowboy Harlan Fairfax Curruthers that Edward Norton plays in the flawed yet fascinating film. A psychologically compelling character-driven contemporary western that plays on the genre archetypes of good and evil, the film focuses on the aimless wanderings of two kids coming-of-age in the San Fernando Valley. 

As a restless teenager on the cusp of womanhood, Tobe (Evan Rachel Wood) spends most of her days with friends or being followed around by her equally bored brother Lonnie (Rory Culkin). A maternal figure standing in for their mother who's out of the picture, in the way that Lonnie gravitates to Tobe, we begin to realize that – although Jacobson barely fills in the details for most of these characters – Wood's Tobe is a girl who has grown up much too quickly. 

 And just like we see in Norton both darkness and light, casting the precocious Wood (who'd first made a splash playing characters thrust into adulthood early), ensures that Jacobson brilliantly uses people as iconography in “Down in the Valley.” 

Ogled by Norton's handsome, much older Harlan as he fills her friend's car with gas, Tobe boldly eyes the stranger back and impulsively invites him to accompany them to the beach. Quitting his job on the spot, he jumps feet first into the ocean and headfirst into a relationship with Tobe. 

Guileless and relatively innocent (at least initially), although it's Harlan who has several years on his new girlfriend, after their first afternoon together quickly escalates into sex, it's surprisingly Harlan who wants to pump the brakes a bit and court her '50s style. Asking her younger brother if it's okay that he dates Tobe, in that moment we sense the “aw, shucks” Jimmy Stewart style nervousness that attracted Tobe to Harlan in the first place. Unfortunately for the kids, however, it takes a man closer to Harlan's age to see right through it. 

An overprotective stepfather to the two children who once again (with his natural “cop's face”) is cast as a man of the law, when Morse's Wade comes home and sees his stepdaughter wearing a dress that the man she's about to leave home with bought her, alarm bells start to go off in his head. Sizing him up but soon backing down, he lets the two go out, which indicates to us that Tobe must be of age (or else he's just that trusting). Things quickly change, however, first when she begins staying out all hours and again when she gets arrested for stealing a horse after former ranch hand Harlan lets himself onto another man's property to “borrow” a white horse and bring Tobe for a joy ride. 

In medieval romantic literature and movie westerns, the chivalrous heroes of the genres are the ones on white horses donning white hats. But even before Jacobson lets us see how white-hatted Harlan spends his days playacting gunfights (with real guns) when Tobe's not around, we start understanding why Wade instinctively knew that when it comes to this cowboy, something is definitely off. Pulled into the melee after the horse's owner (Bruce Dern) calls the cops and tells them that despite Harlan's insistence to the contrary, he's never seen him before in his life, Wade lays down the law that she needs to stop seeing this strange man. 

Soon a standoff develops between the two in the meandering third act when Morse – donning a black hat, clothes, and riding a dark horse as well – forms a posse with others to locate and arrest Harlan for a shocking crime. And the film's genre symbolism truly comes full circle when they wander onto a western movie set. 

Refusing to give us any answers about the drifter's background or mental state as the character of Harlan takes on some De Niro in “Taxi Driver” like properties when he aspires to “rescue” the kids from their domineering stepfather, the film finds its one true moral center in the complex heart of Wade. A cautionary tale about the dangers of fantasy, which – despite offering a sense of escape – can be taken much too far, Morse's Wade is the prickly voice of reason when the kids are charmed and seduced by Harlan. 

Knowing he's too strict with Tobe and frighteningly pushes her away, there's a sense of heartbreak and unease in Wade's behavior throughout the movie. We sense this both when he tells Lonnie not to sleep in his sister's room so much because he wants to toughen the sheltered boy up and also when he struggles to discipline a young woman at her most emotionally and hormonally confusing time. He's ill-equipped for his role as their guardian or single father and he knows it. 

Raising questions about masculinity, which admittedly need additional fleshing out to give Morse more to work with and the audience a better sense of their home life, Jacobson's script weaves in a few key lines of dialogue about Wade that are uttered by the other characters. Wanting to impress and bond with his new friend and sudden role model Harlan, Lonnie describes Wade's background in the service as a war veteran. Showing Harlan Wade's collection of vintage guns that he won't let Lonnie touch until he's at least sixteen, Wade's concern over their deadly intent – even when he draws down on Harlan midway into the movie to scare him off – admirably contradicts the casual, frightening way that Norton's character plays with weapons like they're mere extensions of his hand. 

Like his work in “Dancer in the Dark,” Morse's role in “Down in the Valley” is a relatively small one compared to co-stars Edward Norton and Evan Rachel Wood (whose portrayal of a young woman under the spell of a dangerous older man at a time that she actually was makes it quite harrowing). Still, via Morse, Wade's new stateside war between wanting to protect his stepchildren from potential harm but not drive them away in the process becomes one of the film's most underdeveloped yet subtly moving plotlines. So caught up in Tobe's relationship was I the first two times I saw the film, this reading of Wade only came to me recently in a rewatch. Intriguingly, although he has a fraction of the screen time, Morse's Wade is the one you'll find yourself contemplating much more after it ends, even though he's far less mysterious than Harlan. 

And while the film's insistence to put a bow on the ending as two characters reflect on Norton's troubled cowboy takes something away from “Down in the Valley”'s overall ambiguity, it's a curious film that's elevated by its talented quartet of stars. Likewise, it's one where the innate goodness of Norton and Morse's screen personas in other movies make their work here even richer and more subversive than it is on the page.

Read About 4 More David Morse Films & Performances on DVD Netflix here.

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