California, once viewed as the land of dreams, has become the land of dreamers. In San Fernando Valley, Tobe (Thirteen’s Evan Rachel Wood), named after the tenth month of the year, fights teenage boredom and yearns for excitement in a suburban slump. Her father Wade (David Morse) is the overly aggressive county sheriff, and their encounters generally end with bruised arms and broken household items. Lonnie (Rory Culkin), her sullen 13-year-old brother, needs to believe that “the meek shall inherit the earth” because that is his only chance at making it in the world. While Wade is off keeping the town in line, his kids are barely keeping it together—not that he notices.
Enter Harlan (Edward Norton), a cowboy from South Dakota who looks and acts like he strolled out of a John Ford Western. His unique manner catches the attention of Tobe and her friends, who invite the boot-wearing, hat-toting cordial stranger to the beach after spotting him at a gas station. Shortly after, despite their drastic age difference, Tobe and Harlan dip into a steamy romance. She fills him with youthful innocence; he gives her the excitement she craves. It’s an age-inappropriate love affair, but Harlan shows no signs of heading towards the nearest exit. He also buddies up with Lonnie, who seems in desperate need of some male bonding.
After Harlan rides into the family’s life, things get rocky. Wade, understandably, does not want this “trailer trash nobody” hanging around his children, and orders him to scram at gunpoint. For a while, the movie doesn’t make it crystal-clear who to side with. The father has a vicious temper that clashes with Harlan’s delicate sweetness, but what kind of normal adult spends all his time playing with minors? As the story unfolds, Harlan takes the Old West way of life a little too literally. He plays cowboy games by himself, rides around on horseback, and always carries a gun. While his unique way of living is a refreshing counterpoint to jaded suburbia, he gets too wrapped up in his delusions and starts to echo Travis Bickle, minus the mohawk.
Down In The Valley is a quietly hypnotic film that will cast you under its spell, the same way that Harlan does to the kids. Writer/director David Jacobson (Dahmer) creates an interesting contemporary Western, blending genres and scoring the soundtrack with perfectly-suited acoustic, folk tunes by Peter Salett. The cast is phenomenal, and Norton is back on his game after a bit of a dry spell. Wood has mastered the art of the rebellious nymph, and her performance here is no exception.
The film is extremely strong for the first two thirds, and then takes a bit of a nosedive towards the finale. There is a very shocking scene where something unexpected happens, and the movie doesn’t know where to go after eliciting those gasps. Jacobson, much like Harlan, begins to take the Western angle too seriously and loses sight of what type of film he is making. Even though Down In The Valley eventually falls from grace, it is a fascinating, lyrical story about outsiders bound together by a hope for something better.