Plenty of indie filmmakers are indebted to the great American movies of the '70s, but few wear their influences on their sleeve as blatantly as writer-director David Jacobson. In his striking, extremely well-acted new tragedy Down in the Valley, Jacobson lifts scenes from such classic tales of misplaced obsession as Taxi Driver, Badlands and even Apocalypse Now. At first, the movie has a powerful, narcotic effect. But as it crawls toward its violent, nonsensical conclusion, you start thinking Martin Scorsese and Terrence Malick should sue for royalties.
Valley is a strange beast, brimming with atmosphere and subtext, but wallowing in improbable twists, opaque character motivations and nagging plot details that Jacobson chooses to ignore whenever it's convenient. But at least he starts with a great premise: Displaced, gun-slinging "South Dakota cowboy" Harlan (Ed Norton) is transplanted to the burbs of Southern California, where he falls in love with Tobe (Evan Rachel Wood), a naive teenage girl eager to escape from her domineering father (David Morse).
What at first seems like a surreal modern-day Romeo and Juliet quickly turns into something more menacing and interesting, as the already unstable Harlan transformed by the unconditional love of Tobe turns into a violently possessive monster. But when Tobe starts rebuffing some of his advances, he befriends her little brother Lonnie (Rory Culkin), taking him out for shooting practice.
Working with the talented cinematographer Enrique Chediak, Jacobson invests the film's early scenes with a dreamy, hypnotic mood. He gets plenty of mileage out of the image of a retro-styled cowboy like Harlan juxtaposed against clogged highways and soulless architecture, underscoring it all with twangy, evocative tunes from Peter Salett and Mazzy Star.
As usual, Norton demonstrates his affinity for cracked, oddball characters who operate on their own moral code. Harlan's dialogue a mixture of affected cowpoke slang and modern valley-speak is truly original, and you get the feeling Norton improvised some of the character's best moments. Wood succumbed to histrionics in the overrated Thirteen, but here she lends Tobe an instinctive, empathetic quality that goes way beyond the cliché of the impressionable young girl.
Ultimately, though, Jacobson's script isn't as sharp as his performers. The second half of the film devolves into an extended manhunt for the increasingly unhinged Harlan, who spends a lot of time sitting around in his apartment writing letters to no one and pointing a gun at himself in the mirror, a la Taxi Driver. The only thing that's missing is Robert De Niro's signature line: "You talkin' to me?!"
Showing exclusively at the Birmingham 8 (211 S. Old Woodward Ave., Birmingham; 248-644-3456).
Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].