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Down in the Valley

Driven by Edward Norton's and Evan Rachel Wood's riveting performances, writer-director David Jacobson's tense drama samples bits of cinematic Americana from sources as diverse as SHANE, BADLANDS and TAXI DRIVER, pulling them together into an intelligent deconstruction of the myths and counter-myths of the American West. The valley of the title isn't Red River or Monument, but the San Fernando Valley, where spirited teenager Tobe (Wood) lives with her emotionally neglected younger brother, Lonnie (the perfectly dour-faced Rory Culkin), and her single father, no-nonsense corrections officer Wade (David Morse). The Valley is also where Harlan Carruthers (Norton) lands when he blows into town from somewhere up north; Harlan claims to hail from South Dakota, but the twang on his tongue sounds a lot more like Texas. When Tobe first spots Harlan at the gas station where she and her friends stop on their way to the beach, she's charmed by his gentlemanly cowboy cool, and despite the obvious age difference, invites him to come along. Before the day is through, they're having sex in the cheap motel where Harlan's currently hanging his Stetson. Wade senses that there's something not quite right about this cowboy who's courting his daughter, but it's not until Harlan and Tobe are arrested for "borrowing" a horse from a curmudgeonly old coot (Bruce Dern) whom Harlan claimed was a friend that Wade forbids him to see Tobe. Undeterred even after Wade runs him off his property with a gun, Harlan takes 13-year-old Lonnie to the dry, concrete riverbeds of the Los Angeles River and teaches him how to shoot a gun. This time even Tobe is fed up with Harlan's footloose attitude, which is beginning to look more like reckless endangerment. And when Harlan lays out his bizarre plan to take her and Lonnie away from Wade, she knows things have gotten out of hand. Tobe's demand for time alone, however, comes as a huge blow to Harlan, whose persona begins to unravel with frightening speed. The film is a bit overlong but uncommonly smart. Jacobson's locale isn't the dying West but its picked-over corpse: The valleys were long ago filled with ugly tract homes, the hills spiked with unsightly power lines, and men like Harlan Carruthers turn out to be pasteboard copies of Hollywood cowboys. Like most Westerns, it's elegiac, but its longing is for a time no one's even sure ever existed outside the movies.