Edward Norton is one of the best actors in his field, and certainly one of the best actors to never win an Academy Award. That being said, most of his films are fairly marketable, which makes Down in the Valley all that more of a surprise as few people have heard of it and even fewer have seen it. It's a shame, because the movie is surprisingly good.
In addition to Norton, the movie stars Evan Rachel Wood as Tobe, a young and rebellious girl who meets a cowboy at a gas station and asks him to go the beach with her. Chemistry is instantaneous with the two as Tobe takes a strong liking to him, and perhaps even a stronger when she learns that her stepfather (David Morse) doesn't approve. Harlan (Norton) seems like a good guy, and generally is - despite having no job, he has an idealistic way about the world and is content with the simple things in life. In addition, Harlan takes to her younger brother Lonnie (Rory Culkin) and Lonnie does the same. Unfortunately for the family, Harlan is emotionally unstable and suffers from delusions. His mind lives in the Old West, and when a serious accident forces him to go on the run, he takes Lonnie to the countryside - a.k.a. the San Fernando Valley.
Down in the Valley works on many levels, most of which is the plot. The first half of the movie is more of a love story than anything else, which works well as setup for what is to come. I love films that appear to be one thing and then turn into something entirely else, and Down in the Valley is certainly one of those pictures. In a split second the movie changes for the better, and from there what proceeds is a classic western tale set in modern day Los Angeles.
I am a fan of all four leading cast members, including Morse and Culkin, and they all do a good job here. Morse is especially impactful as a stepfather who clearly loves his children but who doesn't get respect in return. Norton, while generally dominating, is not nearly so much here, although I guess that is part of the act. His charming, naive and quasi-delusional mannerisms are right on target, but this is certainly a more subdued Norton than we've seen in the past, and certainly one of his least memorable performances. Of course, "least memorable performances" for Norton still means better than most.
As for Wood, she is in the same line as Norton. A generally strong actress, her performance here is nothing to scream about.
Culkin, on the other hand, is all around uninspiring. He usually is pretty good, but his character is so bland and unintelligent that it is hard to like him. Despite all of the facts staring him in the face, he continues to ignore them and side with Harlan. I also didn't buy into how Harlan managed to turn him on his father - for a thirteen-year old, he is way too trusting of a person he hardly knows.
For fans of Norton and those who enjoy good movies that no one has heard about, Down in the Valley is highly recommended. Engaging, entertaining and just a slight bit shocking, Down in the Valley is one of the better films of the year.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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