Down in the Valley

Evan Rachel Wood enjoys the beach while Ed Norton enjoys her


Ed Norton continues on his quest to become the new Sean Penn with this very unusual and initially brilliant examination of the cowboy myth and its survival into the modern world. This represents itself in a Bonnie and Clyde love story between Harlan, an itinerant cowpuncher cum gas station attendant (Norton) who immediately quits his job when young and foxy Tobe (Evan Rachel Wood) drives in for gas, and heads off to the beach with her. What a free spirit. What we don’t at first know, but soon becomes apparent, is that our Stetson-wearing South Dakotan is a nutjob. But until that is revealed we are treated to the sort of drama that Robert Redford might once have starred in – sun glints off the lens and there’s a cute singer-songwriter with a guitar on the soundtrack. Norton’s hat is an ironical white and so is his horse. He’s a man out of time roaming the San Fernando valley, where the sweep and the scrub of bits of the old west abut new housing developments. And with him periodically rides the girl’s kid brother (Rory Culkin), younger and even more impressionable than the possibly not so dumb girl.

How does the myth of the west fit in to a world driven by other concerns? Can a man like Harlan survive in this different world? Or were men like him an aberration even in the old world, a cometh-the-time/cometh-the-man period that’s now long gone and thank god for that? That’s the direction that writer/director David Jacobson’s film appears to be moseying, but it’s a half-hearted journey and the questions appear to be being raised as much to lend tone rather than to provide answers, or even considerations.

Norton is typically intense as the sad fantasist who isn’t at all the sort of man he’s pretending to be, whose slow cowboy wisdom shtick probably wouldn’t impress anyone other than a 18 year old and her 13-year-old brother. And this is certainly a film for those who like fine actors giving it their best shot. Evan Rachel Wood is a pretty but tough flower as the girl half his age who’s rebelling because it’s in the teenage script. And David Morse is perhaps best of all as her father, the correctional facility officer – a sheriff stand-in – putting things into the film that surely aren’t there on the page, such as that stiff-legged walk of the violent man who’s always aching to punch someone in the face.

For comparison, cowboys in the modern world, look at Midnight Cowboy, or 1998’s The Hi-Lo Country, a pair of imperfect movies for sure, but in style and raggedy tone they’re of a piece with Down in the Valley.

It’s an interesting set-up, propelled by a great cast, but it’s a donut of goodness around the hole of Harlan’s character – if this guy is crazy then this primarily is the story of a delusional man, not a dead-eyed coded assessment of modern America and its accommodation with its own recent myths. Satire, and this is one, is best focused on the strong, not the weak.




Down in the Valley – Watch it/buy it at Amazon



© Steve Morrissey 2006



The Painted Veil

Naomi Watts and Ed Norton in The Painted Veil


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



19 November

Since 2001, 19 November has been World Toilet Day, as decreed by the World Toilet Organization. Considering that certain social groupings in the English-speaking world can barely bring themselves to use the word “toilet” in its most common sense, preferring “lavatory”, “loo” “bathroom” “restroom” or whatever, World Toilet Day’s 2012 slogan, “I give a shit, do you?” is your proverbial breath of fresh, if faintly scented, air. Kicking into limbo the argument that “toilet” is itself a euphemism – that way madness lies – World Toilet Day has a very simple agenda: to eliminate the taboo surrounding discussion of all things toilet, and to improve sanitation worldwide. The World Toilet Organization, and before that its spiritual parent, the Restroom Association of Singapore, was set up by Jack Sim, a social entrepreneur who decided to use the money he had made in the construction business for humanitarian purposes. Thanks to Sim’s campaigning, and his flair for showmanship and humour, Singapore building regulations were changed to promote “potty parity” (ie equal number of toilet stalls for women). US Congress has since embraced a similar proposal. Sim is a council member of the World Economic Forum, works with Bill Clinton to promote sanitation and his SaniShop franchise has worked out affordable sanitation systems for the poor. The World Toilet Day website points out that investing $1 in sanitation generates a return of $5, because it is a cornerstone of social and economic development, and that there are 2.5 billion people on the planet who don’t have a safe, clean and private toilet.

The Painted Veil (2006, dir: John Curran)

A very old fashioned sort of film that will appeal to lovers of The English Patient, The Painted Veil is a love story set against a backdrop of turbulent political times, set in China as Mao and Chiang Kai Shek are squaring off. It’s based on a Somerset Maugham story, and stars Ed Norton and Naomi Watts. The plot more or less goes like this – flighty Watts has married studious Norton on a whim and, to keep a bit of zip into her life, has been having an affair with hunky Liev Schreiber. Her doctor husband Norton finds out and, as punishment, takes the pair of them off to minister to the sick in a remote part of China where an epidemic of cholera, the disease spread by faecal contamination of drinking water, is raging. The doctor husband is clearly hoping to damn them both to an early death while dying for the noblest of causes, out of spite. What actually plays out there is a surprise, at least to the cuckolding wife, and to say any more is to enter the forbidden zone of spoilers. What I will say though is that the images on display are ravishing, cinematographically – the river, domestic interiors, Watts’s legs (three long lingering shots suggests someone really goes a bundle on legs) – and the supporting cast are top drawer, Toby Jones in particular as one of those addled imperial Brits who likes a drink, loves the opium and has gone native, setting up house with a local woman. Goodness and forgiveness are the film’s themes – is long-suffering Norton a good man or a coward hiding behind virtue? Can Watts atone for breaking the sacred bond of marriage? It is, in other words, about as uncool as a modern film can be. But only a fool believes in cool when there’s artistry – the cinematography, editing, acting, soundtrack and direction are all meticulously controlled – at this high level.

Why Watch?

  • Edward Norton as an Englishman in a straw hat
  • Compare to the original 1934 film version starring Greta Garbo and the 1957 version (called The Seventh Sin)
  • A good example of a Chinese/US co-production, a current phenomenon
  • A film intended for Oscar glory that never got marketed properly


© Steve Morrissey 2013



The Painted Veil – at Amazon





The Score

Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro, The Score



Frank Oz is apparently a bit sniffy about being described as the man who used to be Miss Piggy. Here he directs Robert De Niro, Marlon Brando and Ed Norton in a one-last-heist movie and discovers that big hitters aren’t quite so easy to fist as a porker made of felt.

Bob, Marlon and Ed play, respectively, a jazz-loving master thief hoping to go out on a financial high, his lispingly effeminate fence and the cocky wannabe eager to learn at the master’s feet. A wasted Angela Bassett plays De Niro’s girlfriend. (Well, not entirely wasted. At least the producers got to tick the boxes marked “female” and “black”.)

We’re in the middle of a run of heist movies right now – Blow, The Heist, Ocean’s Eleven, Swordfish are all in theatres or on the way. And in every one of them there will be a point when the criminal mastermind outlines the plan to his waiting accomplices, starting with the line “Gentlemen, I think we know why we’re here” or its equivalent. You know, the bit where we’re told what’s meant to happen, so we can sit back and watch it all unfold, or not. The Score seems to think it’s that sort of film.

But. In a heist movie you root for the felons and marvel at their mission impossible. In The Score this never happens. Partly because the heist scenes are too long-winded, but mostly because Oz lets his Method Giants get away with flatulent “improv” scenes in which Bob mumbles, Marlon pretends not to be Mr Creosote and Ed hovers at the edges like the cloakroom boy at the eunuchs orgy. Which only leaves the minor characters for Oz to direct. Watch them closely. The bizarre faces, the funny voices, the tendency to wisecrack and look into the wings. And suddenly you realise with delicious irony that the director who now barely mentions the Henson years on his CV has given us Muppet Movie: The Heist.

© Steve Morrissey 2001


The Score – at Amazon