Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Modern Westerns

Who shall I ask for my money back? The producers of Down in the Valley, or the critics who said it was worth seeing? I'm leaning towards the critics. The guy from New York Magazine owes me $10.75. What was he smoking? 85% of what happens in this movie is not only thoroughly unauthentic, but completely implausible. Down in the Valley is a potentially good story of a drifter with cowboy fantasies who hangs around somewhere in the San Fernando Valley and meets a restless teenager and things go very wrong. The movie wants to be very poetic and ends up being rather dull, long and opaque. Yet, according to the NYM critic:
Down in the Valley has an authentic emotional vibe that almost carries you past the movie’s swerve from plaintive romance to something more unhinged. The writer-director, David Jacobson, has caught hold of a great idea and done it justice.
Well, I thought actually he'd done precisely the opposite. There is nothing authentic and everything is contrived about it, the "great idea" part is true, but the "done it justice" isn't. Edward Norton is quite good as Harlan, a drifter with cowboy fantasies, but after two extremely slow hours he seems to be doing a one note performance real well, which is a waste of his mercurial talents. It doesn't help him that his romantic interest is Evan Rachel Wood, a beautiful teen actor (Thirteen) whose every reaction is strenously strident and faked. Even worse is her brother, played with sullen, unbearable, charmless monotony by Rory Culkin, the youngest (and I hope the last) of the Culkin acting brood.
The screen comes alive when Norton is around doing his aw shucks shtick and also with the great David Morse, excellent as the kids' stepfather or guardian or something; the movie doesn't bother to explain what he is to those kids or why. And I'll pay full price of admission to watch Bruce Dern just show up for five minutes. He is fantastic. But the movie is pretentious and long. Everything is dealt in elliptical fashion as if it's cool to keep the audience guessing stuff that actually could add more depth to the drama. There is a ridiculous, underexplained sequence where Norton ends up at an LA synagogue full of ultra-orthodox Jews, which could have been lovely in its surreal quality, but instead it is muddled and overwrought. He then goes into a house next door and absconds with the Menorah and everything of value, leaving behind a letter for his dad. Huh? I got it, this is where he comes from, but the way it's set up is so weak, it just goes by in a blur. Even though the movie gets more implausible as it progresses, it feels like it's been sucked out of life. It is strangely static and muted and annoying.
There have been a few recent interesting current westerns, some which happen in today's world. The best I've seen so far is Tommy Lee Jones' directorial debut: The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. A movie that, in contrast to Down in the Valley, does succeed in creating a melancholy Western mood.
Then I went to see the Australian film The Proposition, recommended thus by Anthony Lane in the New Yorker:
John Hillcoat’s sweat-stained movie is set in the Australian outback at the tail end of the nineteenth century. Here, outside a remote settlement, live Captain Morris Stanley (Ray Winstone), the chief of police, and his wife, Martha (Emily Watson), who are striving to maintain a British decorum, complete with Christmas dinner, in an untamable land. Hence the determination with which Stanley pursues the Burns gang—three brothers (Richard Wilson, Guy Pearce, and Danny Huston) who have murdered a local family. The title refers to Stanley’s risky offer: if the middle brother can find and kill the eldest and most savage, the youngest will be spared. What ensues is a strange blend of manhunt and tone poem, in which even the most brutal characters seem rapt in the face of red earth and endless sky. The film was written by Nick Cave, who, not surprisingly, supplied the music; the result may feel confused as a narrative, but, as a portrait of a riven culture, bred on racial conflict, it is formidably hard to ignore.

He's pretty much on the ball, although "formidably hard to ignore" (see Da Vinci Code) doesn't mean it's good. I went to see it because it promised an acting feast: Ray Winstone, Danny Houston, Guy Pearce and Emily Watson. I wish that the people who are making westerns today would be less concerned with giving us tone poems and more with giving us characters that are actual human beings with dialogues that don't seem to have been written by stoned teenagers. The Proposition is a much better movie than Down in the Valley, but the fantastic actors all seem a bit stranded since they don't have much to hold on to in the way of dialogue. Being the asskicking pros that they all are, they do their best, but no cigar.
Perhaps I'm being a bitch because last Sunday at our movie club we saw Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity and I'm still trying to recover from the brilliance of the writing: luminous, sparkling, dark and funny and utterly coherent. As over the top as the noir is, it is always refreshingly human. What a joy.

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