The Old West has vanished, John Wayne is dead, and — this just in — the two most famous ranch hands in America are gay.
But there would be no point in telling any of that to Harlan Fairfax Carruthers, the deceptively charming protagonist of Down in the Valley. Like the anachronistic cowboy Kirk Douglas played so memorably 44 years ago in Lonely Are the Brave, Harlan (the amazing Edward Norton) is profoundly out of touch with his time and place, a laconic throwback in a battered tan Stetson and a snap-button shirt who still favors horseback over fossil-fuel horsepower and who conducts himself with the solemn, steely dignity of Wyatt Earp or Shane. Little matter that the ugly freeways of the San Fernando Valley are thrumming with rush-hour traffic or that airliners now shriek through the cloudless skies overhead. For Harlan, it may as well be 1873, the year Samuel Colt introduced his legendary .45-caliber six-shooter.
Just one problem. Twenty minutes into David Jacobson’s ambitious psychological thriller, it begins to dawn on us that Harlan Carruthers is as crazy as a herd of cattle on loco weed. In the realm of lethal delusions, it turns out, Norman Bates doesn’t have a thing on Harlan, and neither does the fellow who seems to be writer-director Jacobson’s most powerful inspiration, our old New York cabbie pal Travis Bickle. That the gravely disturbed Harlan owns a couple of frontier-era shootin’ irons himself is not a good thing.
Ah, but his quiet courtliness. Almost from the instant she sets eyes on him at a bank of gas pumps, Valley‘s pretty teenage heroine, Tobe (Evan Rachel Wood), is intrigued by Harlan’s otherworldly manners, his sirs and ma’ams and howdys, and by the poetic melancholy with which he contemplates the stars and the wind and the deeper meaning of life. To a rebellious adolescent bombarded by trash culture and tormented by her angry, bewildered father (David Morse), the lean young man in the boot-cut blue jeans is a pure dream, even if he is a little weird. For Tobe (short for October) as for Harlan, it’s lust at first sight. But foreboding inhabits their overheated romance; like the heroic mythology of the West perpetrated by John Ford or Howard Hawks, Harlan is just too good to be true.
Jacobson is certainly no stranger to psychopathology, or to violence. In 1994 he directed Criminal, the story of a bored young man who commits a crime to counteract the monotony, and in 2000 he gave us Dahmer, a grisly biopic about one of the nation’s most notorious serial killers. It seems a bit overwrought and schematic in places, but Valley is a finer piece of work, thanks in large part to Norton’s fascinating performance. One of Hollywood’s most dedicated young actors, he gets inside Harlan’s complicated head with consummate skill: This seemingly sweet-tempered madman lays a snowjob on us too, at least at the outset. We may not be as susceptible to his charms as Tobe or her vulnerable little brother, Lonnie (Rory Culkin), but once Norton starts nudging his old hat back on his head and aw-shucks-ing everybody and magically showing up on a white horse, we grow plenty sympathetic to this lovable displaced person. When, emboldened by a snootful of whiskey, he wanders out into a car-clogged boulevard and lets fly his romance-of-nature spiel, he really sets the hook. To this point, at least, Tobe’s grim, abusive father is the villain. Not only is he the antithesis of any free-spirited cowboy, he has an instinctive suspicion of the young swain courting his daughter. Did we mention that Dad works as a prison guard and has seen a few things over the years?
In any event, by the time we behold shirtless Harlan communing with his demons and gazing with menace into his bathroom mirror, à la Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver, Down in the Valley has taken a couple of dramatic turns. By the time we learn that Harlan and his antagonist, Tobe’s no-nonsense father, own enough revolvers between them to supply Deadwood and Dodge City put together, we understand that somebody has to get shot. And by the time that Tobe knows at least some of the truth about her beloved cowpoke, Jacobson has shoved us over the edge into a pure paranoid fantasy. For Harlan Carruthers, or whoever he is, the big finish may feel like High Noon, but the time is really midnight, when creepy-crawly things put a twist into your brain waves. A psychotic we can’t help falling for, Edward Norton’s beautifully drawn and richly nuanced dreamer could, in time, prove to be one of the most memorable movie characters of recent years. For now, he reminds us of an ancient truth: Lonely are the mad.