Having already plumbed the soul-crushing depths of existential alienation via the prism of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, director David Jacobson revisits similar thematic terrain—and gives it a Sam Shepard-style Old West twist—with Down in the Valley. Wandering into San Fernando in a ten-gallon hat, jeans, and with some rope slung around his shoulder, Harlan Carruthers (Edward Norton) is a cowboy out of his element in the planned community-peppered suburbs, a disconnection that becomes more pronounced after he begins dating rebellious teenage beauty Tobe (Evan Rachel Wood), much to her corrections officer father Wade’s (David Morse) chagrin.
Jacobson shoots the couple’s initial courtship as a series of radiant cinemascope vignettes set in crashing ocean waves, strobe light-saturated nightclubs, and the rolling California hills, utilizing dreamy country ballads and Enrique Chediak’s gorgeously elegiac cinematography to bestow their budding affair with a vibe somewhat reminiscent of All the Real Girls. During its first half, Jacobson flirts with banal clichés—dad-daughter tensions, parental abuse, forbidden love—without ever allowing them to detrimentally interfere with his languorous mood of forbidden, treacherous romance, in part because Norton, fluctuating between aw-shucks sweetness, inflammatory immaturity, and delusional derangement, gives his cowpoke character a mysterious, off-kilter ambiguity.
In frequent cutaways, the director seems to cast the Pacific coast’s bustling highways as an extension of the iconic railroads that brought modernity to—and spelled death for—the untamed, gunfighter-populated frontier. It’s an idea reinforced by Down in the Valley‘s eventual central conflict between law enforcer Wade and pistol-packing wannabe outlaw Harlan, whose play-acting as a bank robber and storytelling about Wyatt Earp’s favorite firearms to Wade’s lonely, impressionable son Lonnie (Rory Culkin)—who shares with Harlan a traumatic rapport with a father figure—speak to his desire to maintain (and embody) archetypal western myths amid a contemporary physical and cultural landscape.
After a stunning act of violence that shatters Harlan and Tobe’s reverie, however, Jacobson slowly loses the reigns of his hypnotically deconstructionist fable, its visual luminosity (such as in a nocturnal forest sequence that might have been shot by Charles Laughton) let down by a script that explicitly lays its previously underplayed cards on the table. A bit of Taxi Driver mimicry may be unoriginal, but at least it’s emboldened by Norton’s unpredictable intensity; the finale on a movie set and subsequent, obvious symbolism involving a white horse trapped in a tract house’s empty garage, however, ultimately seems to reveal the detrimentally hamfisted influence of the Sundance Institute on this otherwise entrancingly mournful film.