Ed Norton Finds Lust in Valley

Odd films from the New Hollywood continue to dot the landscape. After playing a tattooed neo-Nazi and singing jazz in a Woody Allen musical, the versatile and charismatic two-time Oscar nominee Edward Norton travels the low-budget route in the disturbing but riveting Down in the Valley, a New Age cowboy movie that is more at home next door to Tobe Hooper than Gary Cooper.

Long-legged and lean of jaw, in tight, worn-out jeans, dusty boots and a battered Stetson, Mr. Norton plays Harlan Carruthers, a drifter with no goals or ambitions who grifts and hikes his way from South Dakota to Hollywood and invades the life of a suburban family, with tragic consequences. The “valley” in the title is not Death, but San Fernando—which is, in this case, the same thing. Pumping gas to pay for a seedy motel room, Harlan meets a feisty, 18-year-old Valley Girl named Tobe (the enchanting Evan Rachel Wood, in the latest entry in her portrait gallery of bored, provocative Lolitas), chucks his job on the spot and follows her to the beach. The sexually charged romance that ensues intrigues Tobe’s timid, backward kid brother (Rory Culkin), who follows Harlan around like a stray mutt from the animal shelter, but enrages Tobe’s father (the always terrific David Morse), a hard-boiled cop and cynical war veteran who doesn’t buy a word of the cowboy’s “golly-gosh-darn” drawl, demeanor or personality—or his claim to be a ranch hand from South Dakota.

Father knows best. It soon becomes clear, from Harlan’s fantasies as a movie gunslinger shooting holes in the walls of his creepy motel room, and from the minute he steals a horse to show off his skills in the saddle, that Harlan is not the polite, soft-spoken cowpoke he appears to be. He is, in fact, an ex-con who has problems separating fact from fiction, reality from illusion, saying “Holy smoke!” while living on pawnshop cash for stolen goods. Tensions build, leading to inevitable violence, kidnapping and death—plus some major surprises.

Aided by sun-bleached camera-work, Down in the Valley is slight but tight, directed and written by David Jacobson, who proved his affinity for dysfunctional outsiders dancing dangerously on the parameters of “normal” society with the creepy films Criminal and Dahmer. This time he juxtaposes the delusions of a lost gunslinger on his way to a bad end with the restlessness of latchkey children whose lack of parental supervision leads to a troubled future. Mr. Jacobson’s focus on explaining the psychological disorders of nonconformists is aided immeasurably by the rangy, skillful Mr. Norton, who delves and probes with astonishing sensitivity into the tormented psyche of a man-boy weaned on movie lore but lost in the landscape of a vanishing West that has been replaced by shopping malls and theme parks. His body language is mesmerizing. The prodigious talents of the nubile Ms. Wood are not wasted, either. She’s both juicy and vulnerable, a seductive mix of Carroll Baker in Baby Doll and Patty McCormack in The Bad Seed. Down in the Valley bogs down occasionally, and the plight of star-crossed lovers is nothing original. But the pleasure of watching two superb talents meld their ages, gifts and sex appeal long enough to hold an audience captive for two hours is no small feat.

True Horror

America loves its ghost stories, and the dark tale of the “Bell Witch” haunting still causes chills around a campfire at midnight. Based on true events in the country village of Red River, Tenn., that have been validated by eyewitnesses and officially designated as the only case in U.S. history where a spirit or phantom caused the actual death of a human being, the horror story has found its way into 20 books and is now resuscitated on film in An American Haunting. Like all haunted-house folklore, the whole thing works better in the fertile imagination of the mind. Translated to the literal blood and gore of a Technicolor movie, it didn’t send shivers down my spine. Call it The Exorcist Meets Poltergeist, and head for the shelves at Blockbuster, where it will undoubtedly turn up soon.

As the story goes, a respectable landowner named John Bell (Donald Sutherland) is accused of a land swindle in 1817 and found guilty of breaking church law by the elders that ruled his community. The neighbor who accuses him is believed to be a witch who places a curse on the Bell family. Strange things commence—noises in the attic, creaking floorboards, the howling of a wolf—and the house is beset by a demon. Most severely affected is John’s teenage daughter Betsy, who is repeatedly slapped awake, dragged from her bed and suspended in midair, while her mother (Sissy Spacek) keeps a diary to chronicle the horrors befalling the family.

As the terror progresses, the spirit shifts its rage from one family member to the next, giving all of the actors a chance to get knocked around and fall down with bumps on their heads and bruises on their bodies. It’s all rudimentary potboiler stuff, and up to a point the mystery sustains interest. But producer-writer-director Courtney Solomon (Dungeons & Dragons) devotes too much time to probing the fears of the house’s inhabitants with circular camera movements that flash from color to black and white, and not enough time explaining the phenomena that overtake them. The mother’s diary, discovered 135 years later, threatens the new modern owners of the house that in spite of their iPods and cell phones, the ghost will return.

“Just what is going on here?” is a question I found myself asking repeatedly, to no avail. When teenage Betsy is found with her legs spread open and blood soaking the spot in her white nightgown where her privates are, you think, “Aha! It’s Rosemary’s Baby time!” But nothing comes of that red herring. Satan does not make her pregnant. No Demon Seed arrives. An assumption is made that she invented the whole thing to protect herself. Against what? Although the film purports to be true, none of it is rooted in the kind of logic that would make it believable. And although I would happily watch Sissy Spacek read aloud from a National Guard recruiting bulletin, she has little more to do than rock her daughter, feed her husband cough syrup and scream. Tennessee is played by Romania; the woods belong to a farm area near Budapest. Sounds like an excuse for a paid vacation to me.

I like a good thrill, but nothing in this upscale Blair Witch Project with boarding passes and travel per diems works convincingly. I’ve had bigger scares from my tax accountant.

Dixie Pride

In Crazy Like a Fox, the excellent British actor Roger Rees (Nicholas Nickleby) has a raucous and randy field day playing Nat Banks, a sensitive, intelligent country codger (he reads Chekhov for pleasure!) whose 700-acre Virginia farm has fallen to ruin after years of neglect. It’s a pre-Revolution manse where George Washington once stopped on his way to the Delaware, but now seems more like a place Ma and Pa Kettle would call home. Still, since it’s been in his family for seven generations, this old coot, oblivious to realities such as taxes, insurance premiums, polluted swamp water, crop failures and bankruptcy, refuses to acknowledge a cruel little fact called bank foreclosure.

Along comes a pair of crooked lawyers from Washington, D.C., whose promise to restore the house to its original splendor masks a secret plan to tear it down and develop a housing project. Mr. Rees reluctantly signs the deed of sale, and sure enough, the city slickers hand him an eviction notice. The rest of the movie is about what happens when Nat establishes squatters’ rights and refuses to vacate. It’s a movie that is more fun to watch than you might expect.

Secretly overjoyed to get rid of the old albatross, his wife Amy (Mary McDonnell) moves their two children to town, while Nat drags down his ancestors’ old Civil War uniforms from the attic and declares war. Skinny-dipping in his creek, cooking beans over a campfire, living in an abandoned cave, hunting squirrels with a bow and arrow, Nat attracts the attention of neighbors who long to get back to nature, and revives a loving relationship with his own son. Everyone is on his side—from the local cops to the loyal servants who are descendants of the property’s original slaves—all upholding the values and traditions of the Old South.

How it all turns out is for you to discover, but I promise a hardy, zestful time. Bearded and bony, Roger Rees reminded me of the mad but harmless cousin charging down the stairs dressed like Teddy Roosevelt in Arsenic and Old Lace. It’s nice to just sit back and enjoy a movie for a change, and there is enjoyment to spare in this pleasant story about where perseverance can lead a man with blinders on. From the sure-footed comic acting to the chlorophyll-green redolence of Virginia, there is much to savor here. Engagingly helmed by first-time director Richard Squires (a critic, no less!) Crazy Like a Fox is sure-fire stuff, guaranteed to generate good will and do no perceivable harm.

Ed Norton Finds Lust in Valley