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Confronting Modern America in the Western Film

. "Down In the Valley"

There's plenty of potential for good story material in a modern western, romances about current day cowboys bringing old west standards of justice into a modern context. But for that to be accomplished, a wider picture than this one would be required. Here, we have an ensemble character study that turns inward, narrowing its vision to the personal, and reflecting a vision far from a mainstream formula.

When 18-year old Tobe (Evan Rachel Wood), a jail-bait sex-pot, claps eyes on Harlan Carruthers (Edward Norton) for the first time she sees a good looking guy with a cowboy hat, an aura of confidence, and the kind of romantic presence not common at her school level, or anywhere, for that matter, in her part of the San Fernando Valley.

Her young heart beats wildly and sparks of mutual attraction fly. Harlan's willingness to give up his job pumping gas in order to accept her invitation to go to the beach with her and her pals leads to sexual consumation of a budding relationship. Which brings up the more difficult question of where to go from there, but he's happy to be in something beyond his wildest dreams and she's so taken by him that questioning his character and capabilities is the farthest thing from her mind.

Wade, her stern, ungiving Dad (David Morse) has a different take when he sees the cowpoke for the first time. A Sheriff and widower raising Tobe and brother Lonnie (Rory Culkin), Wade recognizes trouble when he sees it and he doesn't want Tobe involved. So, as every kid growing up in their parents' house has problems with overbearing demands and unaceptible rules of behavior, Tobe's is over a blinding romance.

The relationship takes on the patina of deeper meaning when Harlan shows he has a temperament to relate to the withdrawn Lonnie, appealing to the shy kid in a way Wade never would, trips, lessons and, when things are boiling up, some gun practice. Things that endear him to his unquestioning girlfriend and exacerbate Dad's displeasure.

The true side of Harlan's nature is indicated one day when he takes Tobe out for some horseback riding ride on a ranch he's worked on. Or, that he claims to have worked on. When the ownder of the ranch orders him off his horse and property at the end of a shotgun, Harlan's response is to call the old man Charlie and claim he's just forgotten his old friend.

It's more than a delusion. What the interlude demonstrates is that the drifter has a smooth set of pretensions and no roots; an opportunist with a rap sheet; a user, not a giver. Though his skills are real enough the primary one is self survival. He can ride and he can shoot, and he can talk his way out of almost any compromising situation, or thinks he can. He's just met two men who see clear through him even as his gullible lover fails to suspect anything about the smooth facade until he gives her a choice she's not ready for.

Even while we're recognizing the brooding danger of the man, and defense mechanisms borne of past abuse, Norton gives us so much boyish charm and apparent sincerity, we're not entirely ready to condemn him. We're hooked by the potentials of the character's line. We never quite buy into it, though the actor's wiles suggest a complexity beyond what's in the script.

In writer-director Jacobsen's delineation of a warped range rider, we're mesmerized by how far his crafty anti-hero's pretenses can take us and remain plausible. Harlan's insistence on his good intentions to Wade, who is brought to ordering him off his property and away from his daughter... at gunpoint... is a gem of logic-denial and character audacity. He's a man who has fabricated a belief in his ability to convince an adversary of his fine qualities.

Yet, despite the wide scope of the land, a sincere effort to convey an archetypal feel for the myth and romance of the lone figure in the west, and the generally excellent portrayals, the film takes on as much strangeness as its erratic central figure by virtue of choices in the direction of the drama. In the end, the core idea is weighted down by too much length, strained sympathy, and a conclusion that comes with more relief than satisfaction.

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                                      ~~ Jules Brenner
                                         Jules Brenner  

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Evan Rachel Wood and Edward Norton, Jr.
She's sensuous and smart, but not smart enough
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