Down in the Valley
Edward Norton and Evan Rachel Wood turn in strong lead performances, but their talent alone isn't enough to set David Jacobson's sun-bleached, modern-day Western on fire.
An unlikely love story set against the oppressive anonymity of the San Fernando Valley, Down in the Valley brings the Western into the present day. At first glance, rebellious high schooler Tobe (Evan Rachel Wood) and aw-shucks cowboy Harlan (Edward Norton) don't exactly seem like a match made in heaven. Their random encounter at a gas station leads to an impromptu beach invitation and a whirlwind of physical and emotional intimacy. Soon, Harlan has entranced not only Tobe but also her insecure younger brother, Lonnie (Rory Culkin). Her father, Wade (David Morse), is significantly less enchanted, especially after it becomes clear that Harlan may not be quite as straightforward and sincere as he seems. As events escalate, a final stand-off becomes inevitable.
The film's greatest strength is its gifted, able cast. Norton and Wood are very talented actors, and both give convincing, heartfelt performances. Wood, who was so devastating as a troubled teen in Thirteen, successfully conveys Tobe's growing unease around Harlan, her desire for his devotion undercut by his dogged intensity. Tobe wants to be free and independent, but a big part of her is still just a scared kid. For his part, Norton makes Harlan both endearing and unsettling. He plays the two qualities off of each other very subtly at first, so that viewers can't quite decide how they feel about this anachronistic, excessively polite cowhand. Culkin, meanwhile, is all fragile vulnerability as timid, love-starved Lonnie, and Morse effectively portrays the rage of a father who can't control the kids he loves but has no time for.
Despite the strong acting, much of Down in the Valley doesn't quite connect. What begins as a quiet, poignant romance between two lonely souls (shades of All the Real Girls) shifts rather awkwardly into a more menacing tale of delusion and tragedy (one scene in particular smacks of Taxi Driver). Writer/director David Jacobson pointedly juxtaposes traditional Western conventions against the movie's modern setting. Harlan's old-fashioned thoughtfulness is a stark contrast to Tobe's contemporary teenage insolence, and cars stand in for horses--unless, of course, a real horse is involved, in which case it's as likely to amble through a housing development as it is a grassy meadow. But these references--even accompanied by dusty, golden vistas and a plaintive soundtrack--aren't enough to set Down in the Valley apart from the increasingly crowded indie throng.
Hollywood.com rated this film 2 1/2 stars.