Over the past ten years or so Edward Norton has become one of my favorite actors. Even in films I haven’t particularly cared for, like “Fight Club” and “The Score,” he’s been the best part of the show; and in films I have really enjoyed, like “American History X” and “25th Hour,” he’s made them all the better. So it is with 2005’s “Down in the Valley,” a somewhat jumbled, postmodern, suburban Western, which he pretty much carries despite the film’s shortcomings. Norton is an actor to watch.

There is always something a little unsettling about Norton’s movie characters, something hidden behind the disarming smile and the modest, boy-next-door charm. His work in “The Illusionist,” made at about the same time as “Down in the Valley,” is another good example. We’re never quite sure if his characters are for real or if they’re all a trick of the eye. Here, he plays Harlan, a sweet, gentle, unassuming fellow who says he’s from South Dakota and works in ranching. We assume he’s a modern cowboy. But is he?

The “Valley” of the title is not some romanticized Red River Valley of movie and dime-novel fame; it’s Southern California’s San Fernando Valley. And “Down” is more than apt; this psychological character study is nothing to make you sing and dance.

The writer and director, David Jacobson, sets the movie’s conflicting moods in motion with a song, “Fly, Sparrow, Fly,” by Peter Salett over the opening titles. It’s a quiet ballad, all about the need to be free, yet with a melancholy undertone. Further such background songs by Salett and others continue his theme, as the filmmaker introduces us to the hero, a fellow named Harlan (Norton), who works in a gas station but looks and acts like a rancher and has never seen the beach. A young girl he meets, Tobe (Evan Rachel Wood), offers to show him the beach, and much, much more.

Tobe, short for October, is a senior in high school, rather aimless in her ambitions, living in the Valley with her single dad, Wade (David Morse), a corrections officer seriously overprotective of his daughter; and her younger, thirteen-year brother, Lonnie (Rory Culkin), a timid boy afraid of the dark. You might already see how the Cowboy disrupts their dull, drab lives of quiet desperation.

Tobe immediately takes a fancy to Harlan, and a romance ensues, much to the consternation of the father, who takes an immediate dislike of Harlan. Maybe the father sees Harlan for something other than what he claims; or maybe the father sees that the difference in their ages can never work out (Norton was about thirty-six when he made the movie, Wood eighteen). Be that as it may, the movie never clarifies Harlan’s age, and perhaps the filmmakers meant him to be younger than Norton’s actual age. Certainly, Norton looks younger than his years. In any case, the father becomes downright hostile and violent toward the guy.

Harlan, for his part, seems like a perfect gentleman, soft-spoken and kind. The question is whether Harlan is all he appears to be. Is he really the wholesome, Jimmy Stewart type, the simple down-home boy with a good heart and love for personal freedom and wide-open spaces? Is he really a Dakota cowboy or just a Valley wannabe? Or is there something even more unusual, perhaps more sinister, lurking under the surface?

Harlan tells Tobe, “You can even be anybody you want to be. You just have to decide on it and then just do it.” So, he’s a cowboy, to the extent that he sometimes even packs a pair of six-guns and playacts at facing down the bad guys, and he really is a deadly shot.

When they sneak off on their own, Harlan and Tobe’s relationship seems ideal, too good to be true. But when Harlan “borrows” a horse to take Tobe riding and they both wind up in the back of a police car, we begin to wonder where his head is.

Tobe’s father does the best he can, but the girl’s got spirit, so what can he do? He thinks the boyfriend is a nut case, but he can’t stop his daughter from sneaking off at all hours. Therefore, we get a rebellious teen in love with a much older guy who may or may not be all he seems; a father at his wit’s end; and a boy who would probably rather have Harlan as his father than his real dad.

It’s a good setup for dealing with themes of alienation, delusion, and lack of direction, some of the effects of modern society on people young and old. It’s the movie’s second half that lets it down as it quickly muddies the water, going too far over the top in trying to shock and to moralize. Harlan, who may be conning himself as much as he’s conning others, becomes ever more bizarre in his behavior; and the writer/director tries much too hard to demythologize the cult of the Western hero and place the blame for society’s woes on the way our movies, television shows, songs, and literature distort our reality. Harlan is no Kirk Douglas in “Lonely Are the Brave,” longing for the old life of open ranges, freedom of movement, and personal identity in a world now boxed in by roads and fences. “Down in the Valley” becomes more like a psychotic dream.

Moreover, if the film is supposed to be a polemic on America’s ambiguous moral and societal values, I find it strange that the filmmakers would choose the cowboy as a central symbol of the country’s cultural decline. I mean, the image of the cowboy as an American hero waned decades ago, with movies like “Unforgiven” and television shows like “Deadwood” deflating the last of its mythic stature.

Too strange, too slow, and, ultimately, too unsatisfying, “Down in the Valley” fails to make a proper statement about the way we live. But give credit to writer/director Jacobson for his ambition. And credit Norton for his terrific portrayal of a sad, lonely guy living out what may be a sad, lonely fantasy; Wood for her portrayal of an equally sad, lonely girl trying to live out her own dreams; Morse for his turn as a temperamental, headstrong, well-meaning, but frustrated father; and Culkin for his subdued, low-key portrayal of a boy looking for attention. The movie does not waste the performances, but the screenplay could have served them better.

The keep case indicates the movie’s screen size as 16×9, but the movie was shown theatrically at 2.35:1, and it actually measures about 2.20:1 across my television. The anamorphic transfer shows up in a medium-to-high bit rate, yet the image quality is ordinary at best. Most outdoor scenes are soft and faded-looking. This might have been the filmmaker’s intent, to create a dreary picture of the smog-filled San Fernando Valley, or perhaps to reflect his outlook of his drained-out characters; I don’t know. The indoor shots are better, but they, too, lack ultimate clarity and definition.

The disc makes the audio available in either Dolby Digital 5.1 or Dolby 2.0 stereo. The DD 5.1 obviously opens up the sound better, but it still doesn’t deliver too much information to the rear channels. One notices an increase in musical ambience when switching from 2.0 to 5.1, and there are occasional scenes where one can hear thunder and rain from the surrounds. Mostly, however, the audio remains rather commonplace for modern sound reproduction, going about its business in a clean, straightforward manner without calling attention to itself.

A modest collection of extras accompanies the main feature. The most important of these is a question-and-answer session with the director and star, hosted by Peter Travers of “Rolling Stone” magazine, filmed in May of 2006, and lasting about twenty-one minutes. The filmmakers do their best to explain what the film means to them, what its major themes are, and how they came to do the project. It’s worth a listen. Then, there is a series of deleted scenes in non-anamorphic widescreen, totaling about nine minutes; sixteen scene selections and a “Director’s Letter” insert but no chapter listings on it; a non-anamorphic (and distorted) widescreen theatrical trailer; a trailer gallery for other THINKFilm releases; English as the only spoken language; and French subtitles.

Parting Thoughts:
I have to give “Down in the Valley” high marks for thought and intent, but low marks for final execution. Clearly, the movie has a noble purpose in trying to show how modern culture warps and distorts our view of reality, leaving a lot of people aimless and lost. But starting with an elevated vision and a realistic setting, then turning it upside down for a melodramatic finish is the same thing that ruined “Fight Club” for me. Keep it real or go for broke, I say; “Down in the Valley” attempts to do both, the juxtaposition of the two tones not quite working.

Still, there are those riveting performances by Norton, Wood, Morse, and Culkin that almost help save the day. Too bad the day was such a downer.