“Down in the Valley” begins with a sprinkling of ideas and images you’d expect to see in a traditional Western — then slowly, subtly, right before your eyes, it literally becomes a Western.
Edward Norton, immersing himself deeply in yet another role, stars as Harlan Fairfax Carruthers, a lonesome cowboy from South Dakota who meanders into a job at a lazy gas station, an apartment in a run-down complex, a new life of wide-eyed innocence in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley.
All that changes when he meets Tobe (Evan Rachel Wood), a rebellious high school girl half his age who pulls into the service station where he works and invites him to tag along with her and her friends at the beach (where he’s never been, naturally).
They’re making out before the sun sets, then doing it on his kitchen floor that night. It’s as if Wood’s character from “Thirteen” got a little bit older and became much more of a bad girl.
Harlan seems mild-mannered and courtly enough in his white hat and boots, but something isn’t quite right. And despite their age difference, they click immediately, but something isn’t quite right about their relationship, either. (David Morse, powerful yet vulnerable as Tobe’s corrections-officer dad, sees through him right away.)
But for a while, we don’t really know what’s going on, and that’s what’s great about the movie — the clever way writer-director David Jacobson gradually tells his tale.
Norton’s character has romantic notions that ultimately turn violent in a performance that recalls both Robert De Niro in “Taxi Driver” and Norton’s own work in “Fight Club.” He’s amazing in everything he does, and this is no exception. Harlan is an anachronism, a concept; he actually says stuff like, “That’s mighty kind of you,” but later, staggering around after several tequila shots, reveals that he knows how to chant in Hebrew.
He’s someone who’s constantly evolving as the film goes on, but Norton always makes him believable, which is crucial to infusing tension in a film that’s a bit too long and could have gotten draggy.
“Down in the Valley” is creepy, intense and evocative of the loneliness and specific to this haze-covered wasteland (the work of cinematographer Enrique Chediak, who also shot “Boiler Room” and “The Good Girl”). Jacobson clearly knows this place all too well: the endless tract houses, the smog hovering among the palm trees and power lines, and just beyond in the hills, the last remaining bits of brush-covered land that haven’t been swallowed up by suburbia.
That’s where Harlan takes Tobe and her impressionable younger brother (Rory Culkin) in his clingy, calculated attempts at controlling them. It’s also a nice touch and a fitting tribute that Jacobson has set his film in the San Fernando Valley, where so many Westerns were shot before the area became overdeveloped and drained of an innocence of its own.