The Los Angeles of David Jacobson's imagination is a dusty, sun-dried place, the countryside almost bleeding through the pavement. In Down in the Valley, the writer/director sees modern-day L.A. as just a few generations removed from the Old West desert. The film's setting regresses farther and farther into the wilds of the hills until, in the end, it has cloaked itself in the guise of the classic Hollywood Western.
The Western motif is established with the film's main character, Harlan, played by Edward Norton, who speaks with a country-bumpkin drawl that is a generic mix of every sincere cowpoke in film history. Harlan is a South Dakota transplant to the San Fernando Valley and an experienced horseman and ranch hand struggling to find his way in a modern, complicated world. By chance he meets a young woman, Tobe (Evan Rachel Wood, in a likable version of her character from Thirteen), and he's instantly bedeviled by her beauty, innocence, and sweetness.
As their relationship grows, Harlan's true nature is slowly revealed to the audience, and his love for Tobe sours into obsession. The film itself has secret intentions as well: Down in the Valley is a kind of retrofitted Taxi Driver. But what Valley does best with the idea of Taxi Driver is unexpected (and just about the only thing that hasn't been done to it already): explicitly return it to its Western roots.
Just as Taxi Driver updated the John Wayne classic The Searchers, telling a fundamentally similar story but transplanting the Western locales of Monument Valley to the dark cityscape of New York City in a summer swelter, Valley reverses the twist, making it a Western again.
The choice of Norton for the lead role is inspired. Simply put, he is his generation's Robert De Niro. In roles as varied as Primal Fear, American History X, and Keeping the Faith, he brilliantly portrays a broken-boy murderer, an iron-hearted angel of death, and a broken-hearted man of the cloth. In Valley, he calls on all three characters, making Harlan into a charming romantic capable of some pretty unloving acts.
Norton's Harlan is a criminal in the mold of De Niro's Travis Bickle and a defender of innocence like Wayne's Ethan Edwards, though his singularity of purpose is arguably more pure (love, not war) and certainly more politically correct than either. Harlan is a Bickle/Edwards variant that you'd just as soon buy a beer as punch in the mouth.
Valley doesn't have the benefit of being iconic like The Searchers or unprecedented like Taxi Driver, but it works because it has a romantic and dreamlike, outlaw spirit unique to itself.