Norton’s Comeback Fizzles With This Sleepy Tale of Statutory Romance

It’s understandable that many films have attempted to capture the essence of the San Fernando Valley on the big screen; after all, that’s where most of them are made. Inevitably, though, the valley tends to get glorified or vilified. By clinging to the splinters of wilderness that usually go unnoticed above the snarls of freeway traffic, director David Jacobson crafts a much more grounded interpretation of Los Angeles’ mega-burb to the north in “Down in the Valley,” a neo-Western take on a classic story of forbidden love. Unfortunately for all those involved, Jacobson doesn’t find many redeeming qualities in the Valley, or in the leaden characters who occupy it.

Courtesy of Thinkfilm
Valley Girl: Edward Norton stars as middle-aged drifter who romances a teen (Evan Rachel-Wood) in “Down in the Valley.” This performance marks Norton’s first lead role in three years.

In his first major role in three years, Edward Norton takes the reigns as Harlan, a dull, misplaced cowboy who pumps gas for a living and claims he’s never seen the ocean. It’s crucial to the plot that he come off as charming, except he really just seems a little slow. He’s also supposed to be handsome, but Edward Norton’s droopy, slouching, sun-beaten act makes him seem shrewish and older than he really is. When a young girl flirtatiously grabs Harlan’s stringy bicep as he pumps her gas, she remarks “he’s real, all right” — and you can almost see her imagining Matthew McConaughey.

None of this adds any much-needed believability to Harlan’s intense romance with Tobe (Evan Rachel-Wood), an equally boring, “rebellious” girl half his age who spots him at a gas station and decides it’s time he saw the beach. We don’t learn much else about her, besides that “Tobe” is short for October and that she has a penchant for fucking middle-aged cowboys on the first date. Along for the ride is David Morse in yet another requisite police role, this time as a sheriff and concerned father. Morse tries hard but fails to add depth to his paper-flat character. A fattened-up Rory Culkin (the youngest one) shows promise as Tobe’s brother Lonnie, a kid so painfully boring that we take pity on him, caring more and more about him through the film, if only because we care less and less about everyone else.

The film’s first act is pushed along by the valley itself, namely the sweeping cinematography and contemplative still shots; Jacobson keeps Harlan and Tobe small by constantly contrasting their tiny existence with the valley’s vast suburban-industrial smogscapes. For a while, all this Westernizing distracts nicely from the story, but when the plot kicks into high gear, the story’s many holes gape into view (why, for example, is Tobe’s dad only a little miffed about his teen daughter’s 40-year-old boyfriend?) The major plot twist, awkwardly placed halfway through the film, breaks convention by actually making the protagonist less interesting. Things only go downhill from there, and as the movie devolves into a string of chases and shootouts, viewers are left scratching their heads and wondering who to root for.

Jacobson draws his heavy-handed thematic issues using a string of cliches from various movie genres: Harlan sits alone trying to stuff a donut hole back into the donut; Harlan asks Tobe if she thinks “things have a purpose;” Harlan gets into a shootout on an old West movie set. Lest you forget the film’s constant old-West-meets-new-West theme, the climax takes place in a half-built new suburban track home — with a horse in the garage.

Though clocking barely more than two hours, “Down in the Valley” seems so painfully long that it’s hard not to lose interest. As the constant foreshadowing promises, before the film ends, ashes will be scattered. I won’t give away whose ashes, though any ending is a happy one if your only goal is escaping the theater.

“Down in the Valley” is long, hazy and boring, despite plenty of sex and violence. In other words, Jacobson has captured the San Fernando Valley perfectly.