Down in the Valley (15) <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar fivestar -->

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The Independent Culture

This elegiac movie unfolds slowly, almost apologetically, as the tale of a drifter from Dakota named Harlan (Edward Norton) who has fetched up in the sun-hazed sprawl of the San Fernando Valley. Here he hooks up with latchkey kid Tobe (Evan Rachel Wood) and her timorous younger brother Lonnie (Rory Culkin), while their stepfather (David Morse) glowers away in the background. Writer-director David Jacobson throws quite a feint in characterising Harlan: at first he seems a gentle, sweetly old-fashioned cowboy who longs for the open prairies, a dream intensified by the camera's Malick-style expansiveness. By degrees, however, the mask slips and Harlan is revealed as a more troubled soul than we could have known: Norton's performance, quietly reined in for the first hour, breaks out into a self-aggrandising homage to De Niro in Taxi Driver. In the scene where he communes with himself in the mirror, it would have been more honest of Norton actually to say, "Are you talkin' to me?" Mediocrity borrows - genius steals. The sense of place is powerfully evoked, and there's one late shot of a yawning conurbation that is almost heartbreaking, but Norton (who also served as co-producer) has let his vanity run away with him, and the picture stumbles through three different climaxes before it belatedly comes to rest.