Harlan Carruthers is the L.A. version of Travis Bickle, Robert De Niro’s character in “Taxi Driver.” Like Travis, Harlan longs for a world that doesn’t exist anymore, pretends he’s something he’s not, and dreams of living a life of stoicism and heroics instead of the empty drudgery he’s confined to now. Some might call him delusional. He would probably prefer “visionary.”
Harlan is played by Edward Norton in “Down in the Valley,” a sober and often chilling examination of the conflict between the Old West and the New West as it plays out in the hazy, overcrowded sprawl of the San Fernando Valley.
Norton is always a compelling actor, but he’s especially riveting as Harlan, who hails from South Dakota and works as a gas station attendant, though his real passion is for ranching. With his old-fashioned manners and love of horseback riding, you could mistake him for a real cowboy.
We aren’t given his age, but he’s obviously a few years older than the girl he starts dating, Tobe (Evan Rachel Wood), the promiscuous and extroverted daughter of a corrections officer named Wade (David Morse). Tobe shouldn’t be going out with a man so much older than her, but Harlan is all polite deference and “sir” and “with your permission,” which stymies Wade so much that he allows it to happen.
He doesn’t have much control over Tobe anyway. He confesses to her younger brother Lonnie (Rory Culkin) that for all his bluster and posturing, he really has no idea how to govern the headstrong girl. “I admire her gumption, even though it drives me crazy,” he says.
Harlan is a perfect gentleman with Tobe, at least at first, but Tobe is no lady. She quickly seduces him (and, to be fair, doesn’t get much resistance from him), and their status as a couple is affirmed. That’s when Wade finally puts his foot down, distrusting this stranger as much as he distrusts Tobe. And that’s when the trouble begins.
The conflict really comes down to Harlan and Wade, both modern incarnations of old archetypes. Harlan is (or at least wants to be) a cowboy, and Wade is the equivalent of the local sheriff, wary of the interloper who has wandered into town. Harlan spends hours in his one-room apartment practicing shoot-outs, even taking care to perfect the dialogue he’s learned from movies. Wade has a gun collection and no patience for sissies. When Lonnie says he believes “the meek shall inherit the earth,” Wade says, “Where’d you get that crap?” Lonnie doesn’t tell him it’s from the Bible.
Writer/director David Jacobson, whose previous films, “Criminal” (1994) and “Dahmer” (2002) I have not seen, piles on the Western imagery in “Down in the Valley.” He’s fond of juxtapositions, staging a final showdown first on horseback in the underbrush, then moving it to a tract-home development where the horse is locked in a garage. (Out with the old, in with the new, get it?) He even casts Bruce Dern, an old actor familiar with the Western genre, as a rancher.
The movie would be better if it weren’t made of such familiar independent-film parts. The sexually active teen, the sudden violence, the anti-hero protagonist, the family being divided by a newcomer, the general moodiness — that’s a typical day at Sundance.
But “Down in the Valley” manipulates the shopworn elements pretty well. Norton and Morse are both very good, and Wood is OK, though I think three Lolita roles before an actress has passed out of her teens (“Thirteen,” “Pretty Persuasion” and now this) is probably enough for one career. And don’t forget Rory Culkin, playing Tobe’s little brother. Lonnie needs a reliable father figure, and he’s glad to let a rugged-yet-sensitive cowboy like Harlan be the one. No wonder Wade is so upset.
B (2 hrs., 5 min.; )