Down in the Valley

As soon as he appears, it's clear that there is something not quite right about Harlan Carruthers (Edward Norton, Kingdom of Heaven, The Italian Job). He is a cowboy who looks like he stepped right out of the Old West. But this is modern day Los Angeles, and he's not a vaquero. He says he's from South Dakota, and worked on ranches in Texas, and is completely captivating to young October "Tobe" (Evan Rachel Wood, The Upside of Anger, Pretty Persuasion). Tobe, a high schooler, is on the way to the beach with her friends. Harlan has never seen the beach, so she invites him along. There is something strangely innocent about him, and the two instantly fall for each other.

So here's a guy probably in his mid to late thirties falling for a girl who is at most a junior in high school. Her father Wade (David Morse, 16 Blocks, Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story) certainly doesn't approve. Tobe lives with her father and her brother Lonnie (Rory Culkin, The Chumscrubber, Mean Creek). Wade is extremely protective of his children, but also a stern and aggressive parent. He doesn't give Tobe and Lonnie much freedom. Lonnie is extremely lonely, and probably has or will soon develop some psychological problems.

Writer/director David Jacobson (Dahmer) slowly unravels his plot. Things look so clear at first. Wade is a jerk, and Tobe falls for Harlan because he is such a gentleman. He is polite, takes her out on dates, and is really cute. But as the movie progresses, it is clear that there is something else going on. Wade may not be a great father, but he still has parental instincts. He knows that this is wrong. And Harlan and Tobe should also know that what they are doing is wrong. It's a bit frustrating, since any normal person would quickly run away from a situation like that. However, Tobe and Harlan are not exactly normal.

Much of the strength of Down in the Valley comes from the way that the story builds upon itself. Tobe begins to notice small things. Harlan borrows a horse from a man he claims is a friend, yet the man later calls the police, claiming somebody stole his horse. Small things do not add up. Moreover, the focus gradually shifts to Harlan, and Jacobson shows viewers what he does in his spare time. It's soon obvious that this he is a seriously troubled person, and watching him on screen is like watching a train wreck. His actions are stupid and horrible, yet it's hard to avert the eyes from the screen. It's a good role for Norton, who hasn't really done anything substantial in a while. It's also a good role for Culkin, who plays a withdrawn young boy finding somebody he believes to be his first real friend.

Mongoose Rates It: Not Bad.
2 hours, 5 minutes, Rated R for violence, sexual content, language, and drug use.

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