2 Days in the Valley (1996)
“The nights are cool. But the days are murder!”
Director: John Herzfeld
Cast: Teri Hatcher, Jeff Daniels, Danny Aiello
Synopsis: 48 hours of intersecting lives and crimes in Los Angeles.
The movie with which John Herzfeld’s 2 Days in the Valley is invariably compared is Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, due mainly to the fact that it’s comprised of a large ensemble cast playing apparently unconnected characters whose lives intertwine in unexpected ways over a short period of time. To be honest, that’s where the similarities end. Although Herzfeld’s saga is a crime thriller, there is little Tarantino-esque about it other than some quirky characters. 2 Days in the Valley also has a welcome vein of dark humour running through it that is infinitely more subtle than Tarantino’s ’gun accidentally going off in car passenger’s face’ style.
The labyrinthine plot is almost impossible to describe without turning this review into a novella, but it takes as its starting point the contract killing of a man by a hired killer and the criminal the killer has hired to assist him. This criminal act will cause a number of disparate characters to cross paths over the next two days, and much of the enjoyment of the movie comes from the ingenious ways in which Herzfeld engineers these encounters. Almost a dozen characters jostle for our attention in a running time just short of an hour-and-three-quarters, but it’s a measure of Herzfeld’s assuredness that the story never feels rushed or compromised as a result.
The casting is also key. Although there are no A-list names in the cast, Herzfeld has gathered together a collection of gifted and familiar professionals. James Spader enjoys the flashiest role as Lee Woods, the hit-man with ice in his veins, who likes to give his victim a minute to reflect on their life before snuffing them out; his accomplice is a statuesque Norwegian goddess (Charlize Theron in her first major role), whose loyalty to this cold-blooded killer can only end in tragedy; Danny Aiello is Dosmo, the criminal hired to assist Woods, who finds himself set up to posthumously take the fall for the killing. However, Dosmo fortuitously survives Woods’ murder attempt and takes an obnoxious British art dealer (Greg Cruttwell – the only weak link in the cast) and his put-upon assistant (Glenne Headley) hostage as he formulates a plan to get his revenge. Other cast members include Teri Hatcher as the ex-wife of the murdered man, Eric Stoltz and Jeff Daniels as a pair of mismatched cops, and director Paul Mazursky as a washed up writer/director whose suicide attempt is delayed by his efforts to find a good home for his dog.
That Herzfeld manages to produce a coherent plot from such a sprawling cast of characters is something of a minor miracle, but he also succeeds in developing a consistent level of dark humour while avoiding any confusion or disjointedness. And yet this surfeit of characters means that too many are lightly sketched instead of fully rounded, and drift in some cases towards stereotype. And this is perhaps where Tarantino has the advantage over Herzfeld: admittedly Pulp Fiction is a good fifty minutes longer than 2 Days in the Valley, but in that movie at least, Tarantino was able to capture the essence of his characters with just one line of dialogue while, with a few notable exceptions, Herzfeld never really manages to get under the skin of his.
(Reviewed 25th July 2012)