Down in the Valley

Opens at Uptown, Fri., May 19. Rated R. 112 minutes.

There's got to be a pony in here somewhere. Like a John Ford trip to the mall, this disappointing indie wants desperately to believe there's something profound about its mash-up between outdated cowboy codes and a modern girl's coming-of-age. It's triggered by a ranch hand (Edward Norton) whose polite, laconic manner immediately raises suspicions in today's crass San Fernando Valley—all sprawl, no range; gas stations instead of hitching posts; and teenagers itching to leave the homestead behind, not yet knowing there's nothing left to find on the cul-de-sacked frontier.

Teenager "Tobe" (short for October) is quite convincingly played by Evan Rachel Wood (Thirteen), and she's just bustin' out for the opportunity offered by gas-pumping cowpoke Harlan (Norton) to make her a woman. She's maybe 17. He's at least a decade older. And the whole of Valley depends—and fails, ultimately—on our ignoring the Humbert-Lolita overtones of their relationship.

Her father (David Morse) naturally disapproves. Her kid brother (Rory Culkin) is mightily impressed by this cowboy without a horse. (He takes both kids for rides on a white steed "borrowed" from Bruce Dern's ornery rancher.) There's no mother on this tenuous homestead, though it's defended by a locked cabinet full of vintage pistols. Tobe would like nothing better than to leave, to be a free woman, as all teens half dream, half fear. Harlan encourages her ("You can be anybody you want to be"), even as the movie lets slip signs of his own self-invention. Pretty soon, he's acting like a hayseed Travis Bickle, and we have reason to side with her somewhat brutal father, to fear for the two children.

Writer-director David Jacobson did better with Dahmer, making the monster a recognizable creature of our own debased times. He and producer Norton give Harlan a half-baked history that doesn't explain his behavior or obsession with Tobe. Have the sprawl and tract housing made him what he is? Is society to blame? Hearing Harlan's letters—"Life has gone and revealed its purpose to me. Everything else is just illusion"—only adds to the dusty confusion. By the time Jacobson stumbles his characters onto a Western movie set, you're not sure if it's meant to be ironic or meaningful. Even when he finds a resonant image—a horse trapped in a suburban garage, frantically kicking at the aluminum door—he overdoes it. But the clanging speaks for Harlan, Tobe, and the viewer: Get us outta this gol-darned place!

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