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By Felix Vasquez Jr. | May 23, 2006

So, Edward Norton, it’s been a while, eh? I have to say, without you the film world’s been a void black hole filled with the Kutchers, Michael Murray’s, and Welling’s, and I missed you. I’m glad to see you back on film; hell, I’ll even forgive your role in “The Italian Job”, only because I’m happy you’re back in the movies again, and because you’re possibly one of my favorite actors of the modern era. You are one of the few people who can make creepy cool, and it’s about time you returned once more to show these lightweights how it’s done. Don’t worry, there have been the Saarsgards, Scotts, Gyllenhaal’s, and Ruffalo’s to fill in for you.

“Down in the Valley” is the comeback for Edward Norton whose been on a nearly four year hiatus from major film productions (save for his thankless performance in “Kingdom of Heaven”), and it’s like he never left. “Down in the Valley” is an admittedly flawed, but collectively fascinating experience about a romantic tragedy with a thriller angle that remained unpredictable from the get go.

It’s sometimes difficult to explain a particular film, which is a good aspect in this case, because this was an unusual film. “Down in the Valley” is an odd story about the thin line between fantasy and reality, and how thinner the line can become when a mentally unsound person sinks themselves in to that state and prefers to stay there rather than face the real world. And sometimes, the world we create is so much happier. Evan Rachel Woods is Tobe, a young girl who takes care of her brother, and whose relationship with her father is almost non-existent.

One day on the way to the beach, she meets a gas station attendant who forms an instant sexual attraction to her. Edward Norton is an unusual mixture of Joe Buck, and Travis Bickle as this man who is convinced he’s an old west cowboy in modern times. The two form a sexual relationship in spite of their rather apparent almost obscene age difference. David Morse gives a strong performance as a non-entity of a father who is greeted with this unwelcome intruder who insinuates himself into the family, and intends on keeping them close even at the influence of this charming person.

Norton really never misses a beat with his sublime and utterly disturbed performance as Harlan, a proper out of touch man who saunters around like a cowboy, and alters every element of his environment to fix it to his world, and the audience knows from the beginning that mentally, he’s just not present. Norton’s performance is one of the true standouts along with Morse, as he romances Tobe without much of an effort and seeks to sweep her away to a “valley”. But when we’re alone with him, we see the true nature of his persona and we can’t help but wonder what will happen next.

“Down in the Valley” places itself in the middle of the story as a romance as Tobe, a minor, is romanced by Harlan who may well be in his early thirties, and bonds with her young brother Lonnie played by Rory Culkin. And then things begin to gradually take a turn for the worse as the film becomes darker, the tension heightened, and the story pulled in directions where Harlan is struggling between his fantasy world, and the real world before him. Does he choose to do this, or is it out of his control?

Sadly though, one real caveat of Jacobson’s film is that it never really gives us a bit of a realistic story element to draw us in. Why doesn’t Morse’s character look in to Harlan’s background if he’s disturbed by him? Why doesn’t he become more protective in the beginning? What is Tobe’s attraction to Harlan, really? And Wood’s performance is really only a standard one as she plays basically the same character from “Thirteen”, a minor who seeks to spite her single parent by getting involved in activities they find potentially dangerous.

But, in spite of those faults, “Down in the Valley” is an original and utterly unconventional tragedy of fantasy and reality, and the potential lethal results of worlds colliding.

Ed, glad to have you back.

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