Look out: here comes another revisionist Western. In Down in the Valley, the landscape is comprised mostly of pavement and suburban tract housing, with opening shots pausing on traffic and overpasses and the Bob Hope Airport. Harlan Caruthers (Edward Norton) has recently moved back to the San Fernando Valley, and he’s feeling melancholy about it. He finds no space, no sky, no sympathy.
Like Kit Carruthers in Badlands, Harlan finds solace and a perverse inspiration in a girl too young for him, October (Evan Rachel Wood). They meet while she’s on her way to the beach with her high school friends; he’s wearing cowboy gear and pumping gas, and all too glad to leave his job behind when she invites him to come along. (“Are you for real?” asks Tobe’s friend April [Kat Dennings]. “I think so,” he flirts, “Wanna give a squeeze?”) Their first date is dreamy, all sun-sparkled surfaces and white-blasty fade-outs; by the time they transition from a loving kiss in the ocean to a quick slam up against his kitchen wall, Harlan is smitten. “You’re a good girl,” he says more than once. And he means to impress her in whatever ways he can muster.
Living with her cranky corrections officer father, Wade (David Morse), and younger brother Lonnie (Rory Culkin), Tobe can’t know how sour her age-appropriate rebelliousness will turn. She thinks she’s in love with Harlan, romantic, lanky, and humble. Wade immediately suspects trouble, given the age difference, but he’s also worried by the young man’s smoothness, his calculated charm and instant familiarity. While Harlan appears guileless, his naïvete is also strange, in the way Sam Shepard’s cowboys are strange, simultaneously out of place and looking to fit in. His vulnerability makes him appealing, unlike the self-distancing Wade. Sharing a tub with Tobe, Harlan muses, “Most days, I just wanna step outside of my own heart, go walk under a sky full of stars, and hear nothing but the wind, and when I do speak, I want it to be with my true voice”), though his tendency to act out cowboy movies in his apartment also make him slightly sinister.
Harlan’s difference from Wade captivates Lonnie as well. Early on, a snuffling Lonnie sneaks into Tobe’s bedroom, afraid of the night; when Wade confronts him the next morning, suggesting that he come to him instead, Lonnie says, “You told me not to bother you”; Wade’s response explains why the boy will never come to him: “Well, don’t if it’s just a shadow.” The cowboy, by contrast, identifies with him, confessing he was even smaller at 13 than Lonnie, inviting him along for burgers with Tobe.
As endearing as he seems, it’s not long before Harlan’s darkness becomes plain. At first, this revelation doesn’t so much prove Wade’s rightness as it chips away at the mythic heroism that Harlan believes. Tobe begins to worry when she suspects — despite Harlan’s outraged protests to the contrary — that he has stolen a horse from a roughhewn rancher he calls Charlie (Bruce Dern). Suddenly, their shimmery afternoon of riding over hilltops and swinging from a perfect tree looks spooky. Is Harlan as unhinged as he seems to be or does everyone else just not get him?
The film gives up trying to ambiguate Harlan’s scariness when it shows him alone in his spartan apartment. Here he writes a letter whose tone combines both Travis Bickle’s and Holly’s narration in Badlands, at once juvenile, ominous, and unfathomable. He poses with his gun in a series of jump cuts in front of his mirror (oh so Taxi Driver). As he poses, reinventing himself as a volatile, virile Western hero, Harlan’s letter continues, his voiceover lying about how busy he’s been: “I am going with a super gal. Her name is October. She brought me to her family and they have made me their own. And we are stuck together like each other’s shadow.”
He’s partly right: they have become shadows of one another. More to the point, Harlan’s story — delusional, inspiring — is overwhelming him, he’s become his self-image. Harlan is a product of the broader fantasies all around him. He reenacts the shoot-outs he’s seen in movies, slamming over furniture and speaking the dialogue too loudly, straining to understand every word he hears and says. Depressed, he sits in a diner and the camera takes his point of view, down at the table. But instead of staring into a coffee cup swirling with cream (as happens in another memorable moment in Taxi Driver), he plays with his donut, poking one piece through the hole, childish, vaguely sex-obsessed. Harlan’s loss is irrecoverable.
Harlan’s multiplying fictions collide when he is, inevitably, on the run. Eluding the authority he can’t help but see as oppressive, he takes Lonnie with him, a child who resents his father and, like Harlan, needs a savior. Wandering through the night, they end up, miraculously, in a place where a handsome marshal is shyly asking a woman to dance. Harlan watches the scene before him, joins in the Western-dressed folks who clap along with the dance, enchanted.
“Harlan!” yells out Lonnie, worried that they’re being pursued still. Harlan, beguiled, doesn’t notice the cameras or boom microphones set off on a side street. He turns to look up at Lonnie on the balcony, his smile wide and his arms spread in a gesture that’s part disbelief and part submission to the dream. He’s wandered into heaven. Even when authorities enter the scene to take Harlan down, it only expands his fantasy: he’s too ready for a showdown.
Seeking, as he puts it, “one open face” to reflect his own, Harlan can’t find his way. Until the movie turns in on itself, and becomes as lost in the mythology as Harlan appears to be, it offers a sharp revision of broadly affecting, rugged individualist myths. But when the metaphors overcome the “shadows,” Down in the Valley turns trite, less a study of cultural context than personal pathology. And then it’s no longer defiant or deconstructive, just familiar.