Down In The Valley David Jacobson

Almost a direct-to-DVD casualty, producer Edward Norton threw as much of his own money as possible to keep Down In The Valley on its road to (a few) cineplexes.

Ten years after his Academy Award nominated debut in Primal Fear, it’s understandable why Norton would want people to see this: there’s been a drought in Norton's career. His last worthy performance came in 2002's 25th Hour and even that was a return to form after a few years of duds (Keeping The Faith, anyone?). But Valley is a killer role for Norton and not a bad film either.

Considering its very limited release, its doubtful many people will go out and see it, but at least it won't receive the mark of death that a DVD bargain bin suggests. Norton plays Harlan, a drifter we first meet when he’s pumping gas on the San Fernando Valley strip. He’s simple as apple pie with a Hicksville drawl straight from North Dakota. This is what attracts teenaged Tobe (Evan Rachel Wood) to him. As if playing her 13-year-old character three years later, Wood’s Tobe has grown tired of the "let’s be rebellious” world she’s engulfed in and finds Harlan’s simple nature refreshing.

Harlan quickly becomes a staple in Tobe’s life, befriending her lonely little brother Lonnie (Rory Culkin, the best 15-year-old character actor around) and seriously pissing off her gun-toting stepfather Wade (David Morse). But this star-crossed lovers in the Valley plot doesn’t last too long, and as most probably guessed from the opening credits, there’s a whole lot more going on here than we are led to believe.

Unfortunately, the moment Valley turns its coin, the film loses the one thing both its main character and its overall charm had going for it: innocence. The first half of the film is a small, even beautiful story about the constraints of urban American life and utilises the much-used urban-rural dichotomy to its advantage. It doesn't take on more than it can handle and plays like an intimate dramedy studying some well-written and interesting characters.

However, the second half takes on a lot: Western mythology, plot twists galore, psychological thrills, and father-daughter relations. It works to a degree, but the "we’ve seen this before” vibe kicks into high gear. Down In The Valley still ends up worth your while. Norton’s performance is truly suggestive of great talents and hopefully he continues avoiding roles that are not. Wood is equally fantastic and if she stays on the anti-Lohan track during her teen-to-adult actor transition she could be her generation's Jodie Foster.

Newcomer director David Jacobson has some great ideas and perhaps his future endeavours could utilise more originality and less genre bending and "borrowing.” In any case, the film deserves its slot at your nearest rep cinema and its place as one of the best of Norton’s ten-year filmography. (Th!nk)