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MOVIE REVIEW

'Down in the Valley' is lovesick about the West

Down in the Valley
Written and directed by: David Jacobson
Starring: Edward Norton, Evan Rachel Wood, David Morse, Rory Culkin
At: Kendall Square, Embassy Cinema
Running time: 117 minutes
Rated: R (violence, sexual content, language, drug use)

Do you judge a movie like ''Down in the Valley" on its ambitions or its execution? The answer's both, and so this often startling, often morose drama about a Los Angeles cowboy and his teenage lady love is noteworthy for the poetry it aspires to and the jumbled prose it delivers. If nothing else, the movie gives producer-star Edward Norton a juicy role to bite into, and that's a rare sight these days.

He plays Harlan Carruthers, a South Dakota cowboy down on his luck in Los Angeles. Working at a filling station when Tobe (Evan Rachel Wood) meets him, Harlan is like nothing the rebellious San Fernando Valley teenager has seen. Their eyes lock through the back window of her giggly friend's car, and she gets out to talk with him. He's gentle, courteous, and he says what he means to say, no more and no less. She's smitten. ''Are you for real?" she asks. ''Ah think so," comes the twangy reply.

After a day at the beach, Tobe brings Harlan back to her house for an impassioned coupling, but he wants to date her properly. He buys her a pretty polka-dot dress and takes her riding on a borrowed horse into the hills; for the first time, the girl senses the lay of the land -- the old America that still lies calmly beneath the housing developments.

Around here, writer-director David Jacobson starts putting wrinkles into his tale. The horse was stolen, its owner (Bruce Dern in crazy-coot mode) claiming to have never met Harlan. The police are called, along with Tobe's father, an earnest but hotheaded prison guard (David Morse). He looks at his daughter's new boyfriend and sees an older man and, worse, a crazy man.

Is Harlan who he says he is, or is he just another California fantasist? ''Down in the Valley" keeps us guessing for a while because, honestly, it's not all that interested in an answer. The film at first glance seems a less hysterical bookend to Wood's teen-gone-wild opus, ''Thirteen," but Jacobson's not interested in that either. He wants to fashion an elegy to the long-vanished West, and to Western myths no one recognizes anymore. Harlan could be insane, the film hints, just because he wears a cowboy hat and doesn't like to drive.

There are movie precedents here, especially ''Lonely Are the Brave," the 1962 Kirk Douglas drama about a cowpoke on the run from helicopters and police cars. (Jacobson also throws in a jarring homage to ''Taxi Driver" at one point.) When Harlan takes Tobe's painfully shy younger brother Lonnie (Rory Culkin) out for an afternoon of shooting bottles, ''Down in the Valley" taps into gunslinger classics like ''Shane," but Jacobson freights them with madness and loss. Even Tobe has to look away in sorrow after a while.

The performances are deep and rich -- Wood is coming to seem like a smarter Chloe Sevigny, Rory looks to be the Culkin with talent, and Norton's portrayal of Harlan aches with ambiguity. The role's a more tragic version of the actor's conflicted altar boy in ''Primal Fear," the 1996 thriller that popped him loose.

Jacobson's larger ambitions fight against the story's deepening melodrama, though, and after a shocking plot turn, ''Down in the Valley" straggles on for another half-hour of increasing audience disbelief. The movie starts to float away on its longueurs, propped up by a lovely soundtrack of Peter Salett's acoustic ballads and Mazzy Star's drone-rock.

There are some great, pessimistic notions here: that the Old West is so dead only a crazy person would believe in it, but that its myths remain strong enough to sustain psychosis. ''Down in the Valley" raises those ideas only to lose them in a romanticized smog.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.

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