It took me a long time to appreciate the western. I had no interest in John Wayne or "The Man with No Name" or gunfights at high noon. It all seemed a bit hokey to me. I think the first time I actually gave it fair attention I was in my mid-20s, when I pretty much forced myself to watch the classics, such as The Searchers, High Noon, Stagecoach and The Wild Bunch.
The same is or would be true for most people of my generation. The western has little significance to anyone born in the last 35 years, not just because the genre was pretty much invisible from the mid-70s to the early 90s and has been scarce still since, but also because its conventions have become more clichés than standards, and because new perspectives on its subject matter have weakened its glorification. Today films set in the same time period are more likely to be categorized as and have the appeal of historical fiction rather than that dead brand of "cowboys and Indians."
With his lyrical film Down in the Valley, writer-director David Jacobson examines the life and death of the western and its incompatibility with the youth of today. While paying respect and homage, he seems to accept a sort of distanced affection for the genre that results in a fascinating, yet slightly off-balance, mix of tribute and scrutiny.
Edward Norton, who also produced the film and co-developed its story, stars as Harlan Fairfax Carruthers, a displaced rancher working the pumps at a gas station in San Fernando Valley (an amusing remove from the western regular Monument Valley). The opening shots of the film show him decked out in full "costume" walking through a landscape of highways, as cars and airplanes and other modern inventions serve to separate him from the era in which he belongs.
One day a (station) wagon filled with teenagers pulls up for gas, and Harlan's life is changed forever. When he first sees the beautiful young Tobe (Evan Rachel Wood) sitting in the back of the car, she looks like a golden-age movie actress, and he immediately falls for her. Somehow he, with his cowboy clothes and James Stewart-esque, "aw shucks" naiveté, likewise attracts her and they embark on a star-crossed romance of cultural collision.
Harlan is so old-fashioned that he politely seeks permission from Tobe's father (David Morse) and her brother, Lonnie (Rory Culkin) to take her out. In customary fashion, the father is disapproving of the relationship and eventually he forbids Tobe to continue seeing Harlan, not because he's so much older but more so because he seems clinically insane and may possibly be dangerously so.
The love story is reminiscent of Terrence Malick's brilliant 1973 classic Badlands. In that film the cowboy (Martin Sheen), whose name is also Carruthers, easily steals his young lover (Sissy Spacek) away and into the wild expanse of the Dakotas. However, in Down in the Valley the girl is not so willing and the story goes in a very different direction. The contrast is significant in that Badlands takes place in the 1950s and is representative of that time's innocent affair with the western. In Valley's present setting, youth is shown as being far less inclined to follow the genre so deeply.
It is important that Tobe is portrayed so strongly -- "full of gumption," her father explains. When she and Harlan first meet, it is she who is the forward one as she invites him into the wagon, and additionally, in their first lovemaking she again is in control, practically raping him. A theme of the western being overpowered by modern culture is shown further during a date at a mariachi bar. Instead of featuring the live band on the soundtrack, the contemporary music of Mazzy Star plays over the scene and an accompanying montage as the couple migrate to a rave.
The part of Harlan could have easily been played for comedy. His existence seems the stuff of Saturday Night Live skits; real-life cowboy time-travels to the present where he's a fish out of water: hilarity ensues. Norton and Jacobson manage a great feat in keeping the character from becoming a joke. Even when Harlan's facial hair comes and goes, symbolizing his transformation from hero to anti-hero in the movie's subtextual progression through the history of the western, there is not enough attention put on the device to take away from the seriousness of the drama. Harlan doesn't work 100 percent, but the few times he appears too dopey (perhaps I'm just reminded of Norton's performance as a retarded guy in The Score), Norton quickly regains the reality of the character.
It helps sometimes that Norton is surrounded by other great performances in Morse and Wood. Morse doesn't deliver any surprises in his role but, as always, he is effective and he demonstrates the true meaning of supportive acting. Wood, meanwhile, has come a long way since her acclaimed performance in Thirteen. Here she is still the rebel teenager, but she's matured very nicely into an actress who appreciates a less-is-more approach. Meanwhile, Culkin is fine as the passive protagonist, an observing hero modeled after Jacobson as a young boy. He is a perfect example of impressionable vacancy, a parasite ready for something to grab onto. In becoming Harlan's second choice for a runaway companion -- this time sidekick, not lover -- Lonnie exists for the western to attempt a last seduction of youth. The result is one-half personal confrontation with the genre for Jacobson and one-half tragic action climax.
Part of my generation's inability to access many westerns is the effect of comedies like Blazing Saddles, iThree Amigos! and Back to the Future Part III, all of which spoofed and generalized the old films to death. The fact that Down in the Valley never becomes laughable is refreshing and it is a sign of Jacobson's talent as a director. Instead with his film he creates the non-parodic quintessence of the western genre. I can not speak for those people who grew up with the original films or for those who have always been fans of the genre, but as part of an age less accustomed to and less accepting of the western, I found it to be an amazing study.