We initially met Edward Norton about 10 years ago via his wily portrayal of Primal Fear's murderous altar boy, a performance which earned him his first Oscar nomination. Since then he's played everything from a lawyer to a priest to a neo-Nazi, but his most recent film work (besides a masked appearance in last year's Kingdom of Heaven) was in 2003's The Italian Job, a role he actually tried like hell to get out of. So Norton took a couple years off to conquer the full-contact Yahtzee circuit --- OK, I don't know how he spent his time. My point is that Edward Norton is back, causing problematic movies to seem less so.
Our first glimpse of Norton in David Jacobson's modern-day Western Down in the Valley is as he's traversing an overpass, wide-brimmed hat on head, bedroll on back, and lasso on hip. He plays Harlan Fairfax Carruthers, a former ranch hand now pumping gas in the San Fernando Valley, whose head is turned by Tobe (Evan Rachel Wood, The Upside of Anger), a beautiful teenager on her way to the beach. The reticent cowboy and the scrawny firebrand enjoy an instant connection, and it isn't long before grainy sand gives way to fluffy sheets, or before Tobe's overbearing stepfather Wade (David Morse, 16 Blocks) is disapproving of her new romance.
If Harlan seems too good to be true, with his grandly romantic gestures and respectful down-home behavior, then... well... you know. After the idyllic whirlwind, Harlan's true colors begin to bleed through as he encounters increasing resistance from lawman Wade. But by this point Tobe's lonely little brother Lonnie (Rory Culkin, Signs) is thoroughly under Harlan's sweet spell, clinging to a father figure who actually seems to want to spend time with him (and who teaches him how to shoot guns). A jarringly violent deed kicks Valley's third act into motion, leading to vindication for some, disillusion for others, and heavy-handed symbolism for all.
Valley's sun-bleached patina and leisurely storytelling style bring to mind the '70s flicks of Terrence Malick or the Me Decade throwbacks of David Gordon Green, most likely due to Enrique Chediak's evocative cinematography (dig that brilliant chase interlude in the dark), moody tunes from the likes of Calexico, and the mysterious drifter plot. But writer-director Jacobson's characters are largely unsympathetic (with the exception of the innocent Lonnie), and while his decision to withhold key details is not an actual crime, Jacobson may lose some viewers who need concrete reasons to care, as well as those distracted by Norton's vanishing mustache.
Not surprisingly, however, Valley is still quite watchable, and that's because of Norton. He works his usual magic in a role that, like Primal Fear, calls for the character to do some acting himself in order to hide his true nature. Morse and Wood do what they can with their rather one-dimensional parts (and that's a completely wasted Elizabeth Peña as Wade's ladyfriend), while Rory Culkin demonstrates why he is the most gifted Culkin yet. Incidentally, are they still making Culkins? They're so close to perfecting them.
Most of writer-director JiaZhangke'sThe World takes place at one of those theme parks that features "famous sights from five continents for your pleasure." People work, play, come together, break up, and set themselves on fire with the EiffelTower, Big Ben or an unscathed Manhattan skyline in the Beijing background. It all sounds rather cosmopolitan, but realities can be harsh even in a place that traffics exclusively in illusion.
The World focuses on the relationship between a dancer named Tao and her security guard boyfriend Taisheng, as well as what happens when the actual world, in the form of Russian performers, arrives at the park. Tao faces her past while coping with the present and planning for a future beyond her usual borders, while Taisheng, who seems to be content with this insularity, is forced to look beyond his immediate surroundings when he meets a sophisticated costume designer and deals with family tragedy.
The camera work alternates between dizzying handheld verité and still long takes (and Jia uses animation to illustrate the reception of text messages --- why not?), but the thoughtful pacing of The World may be too slow and deliberate for those who require constant action and reaction. Jonathan Rosenbaum, prominent film critic and author of Movies as Politics, calls the 35-year-old Jia "the most talented director, and one of the most respected, in mainland China," and Rosenbaum will be on hand to introduce The World and facilitate an audience discussion following the screening.
Down in the Valley (R), directed by David Jacobson, opens Friday, June 16, at the Little Theatres | The World (NR), directed by JiaZhangke, shows Friday, June 16, at the George Eastman House's Dryden Theatre, 8 p.m.