Dir/scr: David Jacobson.US. 2005. 125mins.
Hailed as the De Niro ofhis generation, Edward Norton finally has a chance to remind us why in DownIn The Valley. After a string of supporting roles and odd career choices (TheItalian Job, The Score, Kingdom Of Heaven etc), he once againtakes centre stage with a charismatic performance as a delusional lost soulwhose innocent demeanour conceals a whole world of trouble.
His work lends distinctionto a tale of star-crossed lovers that may be too much of a downbeat, doom-ladencharacter piece for most mainstream tastes. It still represents a significantmove forward in confidence and polish for Dahmer director David Jacobson andseems likely to provide solid returns from careful nurturing as a specialisedrelease.
Similar in spirit to therevered American cinema of the 1970s, Down In The Valley is also verymuch a latterday western in the mode of the Kirk Douglas 1960s classic LonelyAre The Brave, with a cowboy galloping across tarmac, riding the barbedwire range whilst a plane zooms over head and even settling his differenceswith an old-fashioned shoot-out.
Norton plays Harlan, a manout of his time, emulating the shy, gentlemanly manner of a young Gary Cooper.He claims to be a cowboy from South Dakota who happens to have wound up in theSan Fernando Valley. When teenager Tobe (Wood) sees him pumping gas, she makesall the moves - inviting him to the beach, seducing him and making him believehe has found the girl of his dreams.
Her lonely younger brotherLonnie (Culkin) is also charmed by him and only their sceptical father Wade(Morse) refuses to take him at face value.
The first hour of the filmgoes in exactly the direction one had expected as the bond between Harlan andTobe deepens and the disapproval of Wayne intensifies. Writer-director Jacobsonis even guilty of overstating the lyrical depiction of the couple'srelationship as they frolic in the sea, take romantic horse rides and savourthe great outdoors. The film's meandering grip eventually tightens as itbecomes more of a thriller and a western-style manhunt.
Dressed in blue jeans andwhite singlet most of the time, a boyish Norton conjures up images of JamesDean, Martin Sheen in Badlands and even De Niro's Travis Bickle whenHarlan stands in his hotel room, twirling guns, transfixed by his own imagereflected back in the mirror. He never begs sympathy for the character orstands aside to judge him but plays the sad, misguided reality of a manconvinced he can be something that he is not. His troubles arise from the bestof intentions.
Even Rachel Wood is quietlyeffective as Tobe, a character that develops beyond the conventional intosomeone smart enough to finally recognise that all is not right with herdevoted admirer. Morse brings the weight to the father that we have come toexpect of him, especially from his work under the direction of Sean Penn.
It may be a slow burner anda mite idiosyncratic but Down In The Valley is strongly acted,atmospherically photographed and does have some reward for the patient viewer.
Evan Rachel Wood