'Well, at least we know Edward Norton's still alive,â?� a friend said after hearing my tepid response to the actor's latest misfire, Down in the Valley. In the past three years, Norton has appeared only in a supporting role in Kingdom of Heaven. If it's just choosiness that has accounted for his absence from our marquees, then his ability to recognize scripts as exciting and powerful as Everyone Says I Love You and American History X is now as nonexistent as the proverbial 25th hour.
It's hard to justify Down in the Valley as anything more than a suburban rehash of Taxi Driver without the lyrical and political ambience and with an added dose of cowboy mythology. Norton plays a faux-soulful wrangler named Harlan; his preferred mode of transportation may be a horse instead of a cab, but he spends most of the film pointing pistols at the mirror of his ramshackle motel room, writing delusional letters to his estranged family and obsessing over an underage girl played by Evan Rachel Wood. Cowboy hat or not, Harlan is in quite a Bickle.
Wood's rebellious teenager ' named 'Tobe,â?� short for 'Octoberâ?� ' lives with her tough-love father, Wade (David Morse) and meek, impressionable brother, Lonnie (Rory Culkin, whose creepily expressionless visage houses the movie's best performance) in the San Fernando Valley. Down in the Valley's safe location ' not total backwoods, but far removed from the city's bustle ' has been the milieu for so many similarly brooding and mediocre indies that the film's Sundancian formula feels that much more enforced.
The movie strains credibility as soon as it establishes Tobe and Harlan's relationship: Harlan works at an archaic full-serve gas station, where Tobe and some friends gather to fuel up for a spring break day at the beach. He gazes lustfully at her through the car's back window, and after an exchange of bland dialogue, she inexplicably invites him to the beach, makes out with him in the ocean and screws him.
For Wood, it's Thirteen all over again, but Tobe is rational, and aside from this eccentric older man's chunks of hash-fried wisdom, her motivation to keep him around is nil. Kids perpetuate mistakes to get back at their fathers, to be sure, but Down in the Valley doesn't dig deep enough into her condition to understand the deep-seated roots of her rebelliousness.
The film does have its merits in the slow-burning buildup to Harlan's inevitable psychosis. There's a palpable sense of discomfort every time the seemingly good-natured but simple-minded cowboy clashes with Morse's alpha-male corrections-officer dad. And Culkin's Lonnie is an intriguing volcano whose paranoia and gullibility make him the film's most sympathetic character.
But alas, the patient viewer of the movie's curiously emerging relationships will get little reward for his efforts. A good 20 minutes could have been lopped off the running time, since the last reel is a series of generic chases and shoot-'em-ups that lower Down in the Valley from competent but derivative psychological autopsy to Dumb Action Movie No. 645359.
Writer/director David Jacobson is clearly drawn to psychopathic characters, having made the biopic Dahmer in 2002. But unlike the sensitive and nuanced forays into mental illness undertaken by, say, filmmaker Tim McCann (of the 2006 Florida Film Festival entry Runaway), Jacobsen's popcorn-movie conclusion makes the whole thing seem awfully trivial.
(Opens Friday, June 23, at Regal Winter Park Village Stadium 20, 407-628-0035)