Imperfect and overlong, somewhat stretched and overwrought, Down in the Valley is still a beautifully acted and potent take on a dysfunctional working class family and a naïve drifter - bordering the edges of sociopathic derangement - who ends up powerfully affecting their lives.
Set firmly amongst the freeways, tract-homes and the urban landscape of the San Fernando Valley, Down in the Valley centers on the character of Harlen (Ed Norton), a type of suburban cowboy, who lives in a netherworld of cowboy fantasies and rambles the Valley tipping his dopey hat to the ladies and promising skeptics he will earn their trust.
Harlen lives in a shabby motel, and when bored, pretends he's in Western movie shootouts playing with his guns and lassoing the kitchen chairs. He's been working as a gas station attendant that is until he meets the equally unmoored Tobe (Evan Rachel Wood). Tobe is the defiant and languorously beautiful teenage daughter of a local jail sheriff (hunky David Morse) and Harlan courts her with a cool self-composure.
Of course, from our eyes - and from Tobe's father's - Harlen is nothing but a white trash loser, a dolt who's probably verging on the edge of sanity. But the lovely Tobe doesn't see him this way and she falls for his old-world and romantic cowboy ways when he's actually more innocent and psychologically even younger than Tobe.
Harlen is in reality a child, a man out of place "down in the valley," this land of fast-paced activity, modern rules and where people never get out of their cars. Yet he's also impetuous and manipulative and often acts on the spur of the moment without thinking of the consequences. The first serious signs of trouble come when Harlan takes Tobe to the country for a ride on a white horse that belongs to an eccentric rancher (Bruce Dern) he claims is a friend, and the "friend" pursues them with a gun.
Harlen also holds Tobe's kid brother Lonnie (Rory Culkin) in his complicated thrall. Things get really out of hand when Harlen starts playing off Lonnie and Tobe's affections with their belligerent, protective father and supplying Lonnie with the simple love and attention the boy (and maybe Harlan himself) has never had.
Of course it's inevitable that the shielding father and the wayward boyfriend inevitably clash, and much of the tension of the movie comes from how this relationship eventually plays out. Down in the Valley begins like just another blue collar domestic drama, full of mis-communication and misbegotten tension, but then it radically veers off course, hurtling into the realms of myth and allegory.
Harlan always wanted to be a cowboy and in the final denouement he gets what he wants - but at a price. Then his problems become too overwhelming for Tobe, for Lonnie, for the law, for himself. The climax, a wildly symbolic cinematic chase through the little wilderness that's left, detours across a Western movie set, where all the gun violence begins to take it's toll.
Writer and director David Jacobson builds a rich setting for the inevitable dramatics, the action taking place in a land of American myth that's gone terribly wrong. Jacobson's characters are so richly drawn and his actors to phenomenal in their respective roles, that you can forgive the movie for becoming a little heavy handed and to some extent losing its way towards the end. Mike Leonard October 06.