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With: Edward Norton, Evan Rachel Wood, Rory Culkin, David Morse, Bruce Dern, Elizabeth Peña
Written by: David Jacobson
Directed by: David Jacobson
MPAA Rating: R for violence, sexual content, language and drug use
Running Time: 114
Date: 05/13/2005

Down in the Valley (2006)

2 Stars (out of 4)

'Valley' of the Stalled

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Edward Norton produced, and was a major force in getting Down in the Valley made. It premiered at Cannes with little fanfare and has been desperately trimmed by about 20 minutes for its American release (and yet, it's still way too long). He evidently sees something in this curious film that most other people cannot.

Norton appears as Harlan, a gas station attendant dressed like a friendly cowboy. When a carload of teenage girls drops in for gas, his happy, seemingly naïve responses to their prodding provide temporary amusement for the girls. All except for Tobe (Evan Rachel Wood), who somehow -- inexplicably -- takes a liking to the stranger.

She invites him to join them in their day on the beach. He quits his job and does just that. By the end of the day, Tobe and Harlan are locked at the lips. (The movie never comments on the couple's vast age difference; in real life, he's 36 and she's just 18.)

With his Jimmy Stewart-like charms, Harlan meets Tobe's family. Her little brother, Lonnie (Rory Culkin), reluctantly decides he likes Harlan. Tobe's gruff father, Wade (David Morse) firmly decides that he does not.

More and more Tobe disobeys her father's wishes to see Harlan, and he grows creepier and more needy toward her. He also begins to befriend Lonnie, slowly seducing him away from his father's tough love.

Written and directed by David Jacobson, whose completely pointless Dahmer (2002) failed to justify its own existence, Down in the Valley sporadically increases its sense of dread. We see Harlan playing with a gun, and so we know that someone, somewhere is going to be shot.

As with Dahmer, Jacobson withholds certain information about Harlan, expecting to increase his mystery and appeal -- but it's the wrong information. Yes, he's weird and mysterious, but never quite real. He's never unguarded.

Norton, of course, gives everything to the role, but not even an actor of his immense skill can completely erase his pre-existing persona. Norton began with a shocking debut, a mesmerizing performance in the otherwise forgettable thriller Primal Fear (1996). His trick was a split personality switch, leaping from a stuttering simpleton to a razor-sharp rogue in the space of a heartbeat.

The actor immediately landed a few other coveted roles the same year, in Woody Allen's Everyone Says I Love You and Milos Forman's The People vs. Larry Flynt, but it was clear that Norton favored harder roles, like the creeps, psychos and criminals in Rounders (1998), American History X (1999) and 25th Hour (2002).

And when he could, he repeated the quick-change trick in films like Fight Club (1999), The Score (2001) and The Italian Job (2003).

When Norton appears on screen in Down in the Valley, looking so innocent, he immediately sends up fireworks warning us to watch for some sinister hidden agenda. And Jacobson is not proficient enough to smooth out this wrinkle.

Nevertheless, the film has its queasily effective sequences, especially toward the conclusion when it becomes apparent that, yes, Harlan is a few knots short of a lasso.

He convinces Lonnie to run with him to the San Fernando Valley hillsides, a kind of odd wilderness covered with towering, metal antennae and littered with half-built subdivisions below.

With this, Jacobson begins crossing Harlan's lost cowboy image with the modern world, most strikingly with the image of a horse locked in a garage, pounding at the metal door with its powerful hooves.

But in another scene, Harlan and Lonnie wake up to find themselves on the set of a Western film (huh?).

Overall, the film's difficulty lies in the fact that it comes down to a clash between Harlan and Wade over the destiny of the young-uns. Down in the Valley deliberately clouds and complicates the characters so that neither man really deserves to win.

Yet David Morse, an equally brilliant, if unsung actor, makes Wade into a fully-rounded father figure. Yes, this guy's a jerk, but Morse lets a quiet humanity seep through his hardened, twisted manly-man armor.

In one weirdly devastating scene, Wade talks with Lonnie about "spunk" and whether it can be acquired or whether it's simply there. Lonnie wants his father to tell him that, like Tobe, he will one day have "spunk" too. Lonnie is clearly searching for approval and maybe Wade wants to give it to him. But finally, Wade just can't. We begin to hate him, but also to understand him.

And so it goes. Perhaps the lasso simile is apt; Down in the Valley is like a lasso that spins and spins. Sometimes it makes neat shapes, other times it veers out of control, but it never actually lands or grabs onto anything.

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