Edward Norton made his movie debut almost exactly 10 years ago, as an altar boy accused of murder in Primal Fear, and I still remember how jarring it was when, later on that same year, he played the well-tailored preppy attorney crusading against obscenity law in The People vs. Larry Flynt. It was as if he’d grown up from shrinking, awkward child to clean-cut adult overnight. Then again, the boy never quite disappeared. At 36, Norton still has that geeked-out eagerness, those innocent tilted-up eyes, that halting way of speaking that makes him sound like a kid trying to get over his shyness as he asks the teacher a question.
In Down in the Valley, which Norton produced himself, he draws on that slightly arrested quality to play a character who may be a simpleton or may be not-so-simply nuts. As Harlan, a drifter whom we first meet when he’s pumping gas on a San Fernando Valley strip, Norton wears a cowboy hat and speaks in one of those howdy-ma’am drawls, like a guy who just drifted in from the Ponderosa. Could this rube be for real? Tobe (Evan Rachel Wood), a budding beauty who looks to be about 16, certainly thinks so. When she pulls up at the filling station along with her friends, she’s drawn to him, and you can see why. He may be a bit doofy, but he’s also sexy in an easy, harmless way, like a temporary tattoo. She’s the one who comes on like a predator, which is one reason their affair is doomed to fall off a cliff.
So is the movie, I’m afraid. Written and directed by David Jacobson, who made the little-seen but accomplished Dahmer (2002), Down in the Valley exudes a luscious sense of place — the hazy L.A. boulevards, the landscape of urban tropicana invaded by too many industrial wires. As long as Norton plays Harlan as a modern-day Joe Buck, a kind of four-in-the-afternoon cowboy, we’re drawn by his waltz of innocence and vagueness. But Down in the Valley turns out to be one of those films with a thick, gummy overlay of Western ”mythology.” Harlan, who acts out old cowboy flicks in his motel room, can’t separate reality from image, and the movie has the same problem. It’s like Taxi Driver directed by Wim Wenders.
Which is to say, I didn’t buy half of what I was seeing. Isn’t it likely that Tobe’s father, a sheriff (David Morse), would object to her going out with Harlan more forcefully than he does? Poor David Morse! He’s such a fine actor, with reserves of perception and warmth (there are times he looks ready to star in The Bill Clinton Story), but here, as in too many previous films (Dancer in the Dark, The Crossing Guard), he’s stuck playing the angry, impacted jerk. And what, exactly, do these mismatched lovers share? Evan Rachel Wood has a supernal sexiness, with skin like white marble and the twinkle of a junior ’50s siren, but the script strands her with a character conceived almost entirely from the outside. She’s jailbait without a cause, latching onto a troubled boy-man who, for all of Norton’s neo-Method noodlings, is never quite there.