Down in the Valley stars Edward Norton as Harlan, folksy innocent roiling with secret malice -- the same kind of role that made Norton famous 11 years ago in Primal Fear -- and Evan Rachel Wood as Tobe, a teenage girl that the older Harlan, a wannabe cowboy, falls in love with, seduces, stalks, shoots, and flees from. Norton can almost carry the movie with his Jimmy Stewart charm, made all the more effective by our knowledge that menace lies ahead, but the plot was that of a clever 17-year-old's imagination. That's better than the plots conceived of by stupid adults, but Valley is still a pale imitation of James Marsh’s The King, starring William Hurt as Pastor David Sandow, a Texas exurban preacher, and Gael Bernal as his bastard son, Elvis Valderaz, returned to haunt the father he never knew. I make the comparison because James’ wife, Anne-Mette, told me that Down in the Valley, released shortly after The King, drove the latter film out of theaters. Apparently, there isn't room in this town for two independent films about angry youths with patricide on the mind. In both movies, a strangely blank prodigal son sets up shop in a fleabag motel and then seduces a too-young girl. In both cases, the seduction is meant to hurt the prodigal son's father, not the girl. Both movies result in surprisingly extreme violence.
And for whatever it’s worth, both movies feature a white horse. In The King, the white horse is, I think, a subconscious echo of Michael Lesy’s 1973 book Wisconsin Death Trip -- a movie of which Marsh also made -- and thus a more evocative but less easily translatable symbol. In Valley, the white horse on which Harlan rides is plain ol’ inverted irony. Beware a man in the modern age who rides a white horse, for he is surely wicked.
Valley is a pastiche of such symbolism, so leaden that it dishonors the sources to which it alludes. Norton quickdraws in the mirror, a la De Niro in Taxi Driver (Bernal practices rifle drill in the mirror, but he has an audience in his girl, and so the scene becomes something new), and teaches a wan little boy spunk by kidnapping him, a la Kevin Costner’s superior A Perfect World. Yes -- Down in the Valley makes a Kevin Costner movie look smart. In the end, David Morse, as the girl’s father, hunts Norton down, gets shot, keeps coming, and kills the son-of-a-bitch, a la every Charles Bronson movie ever made. Morse even wears black. Get it? He wears black, but he's the good guy. Father really does know best. That’s the message.
It’s the father who gets it in the end of The King -- even though he’s accepted his bastard son, confessed to his church, and, really, been everything a Christian preacher is supposed to be. But violence still visits him, and despite his repentance, he is no more innocent of the violence than the bastard son who perpetrates it. Norton’s character becomes more obvious and ridiculous as we learn his motives -- he’s secretly Jewish rebelling against his hasidic father by playing cowboy -- whereas Bernal’s character becomes more blank and yet more subtly drawn. What we thought we understood, we realize, we don’t. And we only see how wrong we are –- how hard it is to understand the past, to recognize sin, to interpret a white horse -- around the same time William Hurt does, as his life is burning down around him.