Set deep in the San Fernando — depicted here largely as an infertile crescent of looming power lines and anonymous housing tracts — David Jacobson’s terrific new film probes the absurdities of contemporary suburbia in time-honored (and still potent) fashion: by introducing a walking anachronism. En route to the beach to escape her domineering sheriff father (David Morse) and her perpetually needy little brother (Rory “the talented Culkin” Culkin), rebellious hot-pants teen Tobe (Evan Rachel Wood) meets up with a courtly, aw-shucks stranger in jeans and a Stetson. Harlan (Edward Norton) seems to have wandered into town directly from some long-forgotten B-Western. Creepy age difference notwithstanding (and bravely uncommented upon), Harlan and Tobe begin a passionate affair, much to the consternation of her dad, who’s convinced that Harlan’s genial twanginess has to be a put-on. And indeed, Harlan turns out to be something other than he seems, though not necessarily in the cut-and-dried way you might expect.
Mostly ignored when it premiered at last year’s Cannes Film Festival (in the smaller Un Certain Regard section), Down in the Valley has reportedly since been trimmed by about twenty minutes, though I didn’t notice anything of import missing in the shorter cut. Still present, for better (aesthetically) and worse (pragmatically), is a key scene in which Harlan practices his gunslinging moves before his boarding-room mirror, which has prompted lazy critics to dismiss the character as a dime-store psycho and the film itself as a pale retread of Taxi Driver. But Harlan’s reasons for creating his lone-warrior persona are far more personal than sociological, and Down in the Valley soon veers in a completely unexpected and fearsomely complex direction, making it clear that Jacobson’s true interest is exploring the definition of masculinity, and, by extension, paternity. (Norton has repeatedly said in interviews that he sees the film as a companion piece to Fight Club.) Distinguished by dynamic widescreen compositions and a quartet of superlative performances, the movie is essentially an old-fashioned showdown between John Wayne and Montgomery Clift, duking it out over the soul of a small boy. That you’re never entirely sure who you want to see prevail is a testament to its power. — Mike D’Angelo