Harlan and Tobe are sitting naked in an empty bathtub, high on ecstasy. "I want to speak with my true voice," the boyish man says to the beautiful teenage girl, and they hug, in love and eager for an authentic connection--and it's not just the drugs.
Harlan, played with an affecting mixture of vulnerability and bravado by Ed Norton, is desperately searching for authenticity, for an unironic way to exist in the jumbled urban sprawl of the California valley. He refuses to drive a car and talks like a western hero on TV. "Ain't got the right duds for ocean swimmin'," he says when Tobe (Evan Rachel Wood) picks him up at a gas station and invites him to the beach. He goes anyway, and soon the wanna-be cowboy and the rebellious teenager find themselves having sex on the floor of a suburban kitchen, drippy faucet and all.
Harlan makes quick friends with Tobe's subdued, fearful younger brother Lonnie (Rory Culkin), but he can't convince their overbearing father Wade (David Morse) that he is more than a shiftless loser in a cowboy hat. The lines for a traditional standoff are drawn--Wade, who works as a security guard, cleans his guns obsessively while Harlan enacts shootouts from his favorite films in his apartment. It doesn't take Anton Chekhov to know that all the gun play will lead to bloodshed and eventual tragedy.
Harlan's love for Tobe faces not one but two obstacles: the heroes in John Ford's westerns never had to contend with twelve-lane freeways, sprawling McMansion developments and low-flying aircraft. The Frontier is gone, and the American landscape has been permanently changed by the monstrous growth of malls and franchise restaurants. Shot with a keen eye for the encroachment of civilization, Down in the Valley plays out like Badlands by the way of Koyaanisqatsi.
If it sounds like I'm dancing around telling the plot straight-up, then it's because David Jacobson's Down in the Valley takes a surprising turn halfway through that I don't want to ruin. Outlaws used to be the cynical desperadoes in a world full of rubes, but in the 21st century, the cynics are everywhere, and it's the gullible romantics who cause suspicion. Everyone in the film is flawed, but neither Tobe's fickleness, Wade's aggression, or Lonnie's fear are nearly as dangerous as Harlan's naivite. Down in the Valley ends like the western that Harlan wants his life so desperately to be.