May 15, 2006 12:00 PM

Edward Norton, Evan Rachel Wood, David Morse, Rory Culkin, Bruce Dern


There is a subspecies of guy who preys on high school girls—knowing they’re too young to comprehend fully that he’s a loser. And Harlan (Norton) is one of those guys. He pumps gas in California’s San Fernando Valley, wears a cowboy hat, speaks with a twang and seems to have no fixed address or family when he meets Tobe (Wood), a motherless teenager with a rebellious streak. She’s smitten. Her father (Morse) disapproves, but both Tobe and her kid brother (Culkin) are drawn to the mysterious loner—with tragic results.

While Down in the Valley bursts with provocative characters and themes, it goes on too long and keeps needlessly piling on the plot twists. Still, it holds your attention throughout, bolstered by excellent performances and the ability of director-writer David Jacobson (Dahmer) to make powerful points about our national attachment to a mythical Old West and Hollywood’s role in keeping that illusion alive. When Harlan, astride a horse, rides along a bustling California freeway, the sense of dislocation is palpable and troubling. Playing a man desperate to be someone other than who he is, Norton gives a gut-wrenching performance.


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