Sidling up to the bar — the breakfast bar — of the Farmers Market’s venerable Kokomo Cafe on an unseasonably warm April morning, David Jacobson cuts a striking, if anomalous, figure. Decked out in turquoise snap-button shirt and worn jeans, his prominent Jewish features vying for attention with a pair of thick, black-frame glasses, Jacobson seems almost as out of place as the charming, but psychotic, self-styled cowboy Harlan Carruthers (Edward Norton) who worms his way into a dysfunctional Los Angeles family in Jacobson’s latest movie, Down in the Valley. It’s the third feature film written and directed by the Van Nuys native best known for his de-sensationalized 2002 serial-killer biopic Dahmer, and the first to have directly autobiographical underpinnings. But, Jacobson hastens to add, there’s no reason to be afraid.
“Everything I’ve done has been very personal,” Jacobson says. “Even if I’m writing about someone like Dahmer, there are things inside of me that are connecting to that. I’m finding these emotional things that I can get close to. Down in the Valley started out being much more overtly autobiographical, but then the Harlan character came into it and made everything kind of crazy. But as I thought about it some more, I thought about my older brother, who was kind of a troubled troublemaker, and who died in a car accident when he was 17 and I was 12. To me, he was like a bully — always beating me up or taunting me. But it was weird: My mom, for my birthday, gave me this box of old school stuff from back when I was in fourth or fifth grade, and somewhere in there I was writing about each person in my family, like, ‘I am David Jacobson. I am 4 foot 4 inches tall. I have brown eyes. I like motorcycles and sports,’ and so on. Then for my brother, I wrote, ‘He is into mechanics. He rides motorcycles. He is a real cowboy.’ And I was like, ‘Whoa!’ ”
Beginning with the striking, micro-budget Criminal (1994), in which a put-upon accountant finds self-confidence through embezzlement, Jacobson has shown a strong affinity for the darker side of human nature, and for finding strands of humanity in ostensibly despicable characters. Jacobson traces the moral ambiguity in his work back to the movies that inspired him, particularly the storied “New Hollywood” cinema of the 1960s and ’70s, with its heady assortment of loners, outcasts and other marginal characters. But for Down in the Valley, the director also turned his attention to the mythology of the American West, and of the Hollywood Western.
“A lot of people talk about how film noir was an influence on the filmmakers of the ’60s and ’70s and that whole sense of the antihero,” he says, “but the Westerns were like that even before the noirs — they were often about these desperadoes, living on their own wits, on the outside of society. Something I love about Westerns is that they’re often very lonely — a man or a family just stuck out in the middle of nowhere on their own, and that sense of loneliness on the frontier definitely resonated with my sense of growing up in the Valley. America is a place that’s very much defined by our belief in individualism, and that has a two-sidedness to it. There’s a great sense of freedom and creativity that can come out of that individualism, but then there’s this other side, which is kind of horrible, which is antisocial and destructive and lonely.”
So it’s no real surprise that, as it moves toward its surrealistic climax — an old-West horseback pursuit through a decidedly new-West suburban community — Down in the Valley evolves from Western homage into a troubled consideration of the gunslinger as nonconformist archetype ?and of the dangerous pull of movie illusion. “I was definitely ?thinking a lot about that,” Jacobson says, “about how fantasy and imagination are both vital to our existence but, if taken too far, can become incredibly destructive. For some people, it becomes hard to draw that line, and yet you can’t really say to someone, ‘Don’t use your imagination.’ Just as you can’t tell someone who needs to go on a diet to stop eating.”
With Down in the Valley riding into theaters a full year after its premiere at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival, Jacobson is about to trade his chaps and spurs for some prison blues, as he prepares to film the life story of Billy Wayne Sinclair, the convicted murderer and Angola inmate turned self-taught jailhouse lawyer and whistle-blowing prison reformer. And after that, a pair of tap shoes just may be in order. “I do love musicals,” Jacobson says with a crooked smile. “In fact, with almost every movie I’ve done — even Dahmer — there’s a point where I stop and go, ‘Wait! This could actually be a really good musical.’ ”