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Friday, Dec. 23, 2005
A cowboy lost in suburbia
By KAORI SHOJI
"Down in the Valley" plays on both themes but never in a predictable way. Director David Jacobson seems to be equally fascinated by their mysteries and inherent tragedies. Here, the dream is represented by a delusional guy in his late 30s who has fashioned himself into an all-American cowboy while suburbia is condensed into a comely but bored-out-of-her-mind 18-year-old living in the San Fernando Valley, Calif. They fall headlong into a relationship, but she soon sees through his armor of Wild West pretensions (patched together from various TV westerns) and decides to ditch him. Oh, it hurts.
"Down in the Valley" is a unique and moving requiem, but whether it's for the iconic cowboy or for the lost vastness of the American West isn't really spelled out. The sharp sensation of loss, however, pierces the story like a blade and, quite fittingly, "Down in the Valley" ends with a scattering of ashes.
The centerpiece here is a seasoned Edward Norton in the role of one Harlan Carruthers. Check out his get-up: classic cowboy hat, skinny jeans and snap-button shirt. He's got the cowboy squint (perfected by Gary Cooper), he walks with just the right angled swagger, rides a horse as if he'd been born on one. And he sure knows how to sweet-talk the ladies. Problem is, this is the Valley, 2005. Instead of endless purple mountains, there's 12-lane freeways, strip malls and parking lots. Identical houses stand in rows and the streets are defined by a total lack of pedestrians and huge, plastic trash bins.
Harlan doesn't have a car or a license. In one scene he holds up traffic by sauntering over to some cars and exhorting people to "come out of those steel boxes and feel the wind!" This, of course, with a piece of straw dangling from the corner of his mouth.
When bikini-ed, gorgeous 18-year-old Tobe (Evan Rachel Wood) rolls into the filling station where he works and asks him coyly where he's from, Harlan replies with a Marlboro Man smile and Confederate general accent: "Why, Ah'm from Texas." Tobe's friends are, like, soooo rolling their eyes, but Tobe and Harlan connect instantly. She asks him if he'd like to come with them to the beach. Then and there, Harlan chucks his job, climbs in the car and love blossoms in the back seat of a station wagon.
Harlan's next step is to meet Tobe's family, which consists of her sheriff dad Wade (David Morse) and her 11-year-old brother Lonnie (Rory Culkin). Dad hates him at first sight but the shy, neglected Lonnie is intrigued by Harlan's friendliness. Dad warns Tobe against this stranger, whom he pegs "a loser and a fake," which only fuels her ardor.
But then Harlan starts acting in ways that alert Tobe to his inherent weirdo-ness. All of Dad's warnings start to make sense and Tobe tries to distance herself. This, in turn, sparks something explosive in Harlan. He drops the charm to become what he sees as his true self: a misunderstood man of the Wild West. Pathetic doesn't begin to describe Harlan at this point: He coerces Lonnie into running away with him when Tobe refuses to have anything more to do with him, and steals a horse to aid their escape. But however far they go, it's all rows of houses, asphalt streets and freeways hemmed in by hills. Wade is fast on their heels and Harlan is beginning to lose it. Is it his fault that his cowboy values don't seem to impress anyone?
Harlan does a lot of damage but somehow he always seems like the victim, lost in a world that has no need for him. Norton at his most nuanced in this role; he tinges Harlan's practiced bravado with a hapless bewilderment, as if the cowboy had mistakenly been transported from another time and plonked down into the Valley but trying to make a go of it all the same.
Jacobson inserts a sequence in which Harlan accidentally finds himself on the set of a western movie; they're shooting a square-dance scene and the sheriff is about to propose to a fair maiden. Harlan smiles and, in a surreal daze of ecstasy, joins the cast in clapping and stomping his feet. The moment is shattered when Wade comes in with an automatic rifle. "Back off everyone, this is for real!" And as we soon find out, cowboys are no match for Hollywood reality.