A review of “Down in the Valley” by Jeanne Aufmuth

 

Stars: **

Rating: R for language, nudity and violence

Run Time: 2 hours, 5 minutes

 

 

Edward Norton reappears after a lengthy screen absence (but for a masked turn in “Kingdom of Heaven”) in this painstaking indie that’s too self-conscious for its own good.

The valley of the title is California’s own San Fernando, home to endless vistas of cement and strip malls. Worlds collide when stressed-out teen Tobe (Evan Rachel Wood) meets contemporary cowboy cum South Dakota transplant Harlan Carruthers (Norton) pumping gas at a random filling station. In a fit of flirt she invites Harlan to the beach and we’re off to the races.

There’s something wholly unseemly about a thirty-something drifter hooking up with an underage girl. The script plays it for hearts and flowers but Harlan’s aw-shucks attitude and slimy obsequiousness has to be covering for the fact that he’s either an escaped mental patient or a serial killer.

Harlan maintains his creepy cowboy innocence as far as the script will allow. To this point the narrative is slow but rather sweet, mired in the fervent glow of first love and a sultry L.A. haze.

Sooner rather later Tobe’s law enforcement dad Wade (David Morse) blows a gasket over the idea of his daughter as jailbait and Harlan, who’s tipping over the edge a la Travis Bickle, can’t take the heat. Suffice it to say that he may be a couple sandwiches shy of a prairie picnic.

Norton is such a blazing talent that I expected a lot of him in this intriguing but convoluted romantic tragedy. He has a knack for rising above the material but “Valley” weighs him down with tricky tangents and overblown dramatics. Rory Culkin plays true to type as the damaged younger brother, Wood reprises her sullen turn in “Thirteen” and the generally solid Morse is cornered as the overworked jerk who tough loves his kids with large dollops of muscle and regret.

“Valley” could have been a contender; toeing a fine line between the Old West and the idiosyncrasies of its contemporary counterpart. Instead it misfires like a seized-up six-shooter.