Harlan, played by Edward Norton at the top of his risk-taking game, is a cowboy with no O.K. Corral, just a stretch of the San Fernando Valley where he pumps gas for drivers off the crowded freeway. Harlan sees himself as Wyatt Earp, the gentleman marshal in My Darling Clementine. But he’s more like the California version of Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver: caught between the life he dreams of and the one he’s stuck in. Writer-director David Jacobson, who did a dynamite job with Dahmer, isn’t afraid of plunging into dark, twisted places. You shouldn’t be, either. Down in the Valley is a wild thing that sticks with you long after it’s over. You know, a real movie.
Harlan’s “yes, ma’am” charm is a novelty for Tobe — the gorgeous, gifted Evan Rachel Wood — a jailbait goddess. That puts Harlan in the sights of Tobe’s sheriff daddy (David Morse), who hates this weirdo playing grab-ass with his underage baby and teaching her brother Lonnie (Rory Culkin) to shoot a Colt .45. Fittingly, the showdown occurs on the set of a western movie where illusion and reality fight for Harlan’s soul. Jacobson questions the corrupting influence of mythmaking without ever judging his characters. Powered by contradictory impulses, his film is funny and dead-serious, poetic and plain-spoken, erotic and touchingly tender. Norton is a wonder to behold, catching Harlan in the act of inventing himself and crafting a performance to rank with his career-best work in Fight Club, Primal Fear and American History X. It’s typical of the cowardly indie scene that Norton, as and producer, had to fight to keep this hypnotic and haunting film from going straight to video. Down in the Valley dares you to explore the violence of the mind. Take the dare. It’s something rare these days: untamed.