On a day out at the beach, 18 year-old Tobe (Wood) picks up gentle drifter Harlan (Norton). As their relationship develops, it becomes clear his ingratiating good manners and obsession with being a cowboy hide a deeply troubled mind. But it is only her stepfather Wade (Morse) who can see through him.
Agitated and painfully draggy, this hollow piece of contemporary psycho-trauma is what happens when everyone keeps banging on about how liberated and profound ’70s filmmaking was. There is little doubt that horribly well-intentioned writer-director David Jacobson has sucked up the haunting nihilism of Badlands and Taxi Driver a few times too many. And with a fair eye (he’s determined LA’s acres of concrete walls and baked Tarmac is
the grim texture of urban loneliness) but little feel for the engagement of good cinema, he spews out yet another bleached-out study of disillusioned youth mixed up with a potentially homicidal fruitcake in a Stetson.
It’s the sort of fatuous, mock-raw trend in filmmaking that never fails to attract a good cast willing to drop by to lend their names to the promotion of indie hopefuls (whether they deserve it or not) and keep the CV credible. Ed Norton, working ten years below his weight, does a rehash of the schizoid he’s been doing his entire career — square on the surface, Tyler beneath the rim. Harlan is a goofy fantasist, a rootless hick sporting oddly out-of-date B-movie ethics at the cost of any genuine perception of the world he is in. Certainly, he has an edge — Norton’s too good an actor not to find depths — but his central darkness is glaringly familiar.
Evan Rachel Wood, David Morse and a dopey Rory Culkin all fail to make any impression against the bleak, sun-spotted landscape of LA’s miserable fringes; the Valley is like a depository for lower-middle-class whites and their heel-kicking kids. And having tiny drop-in cameos from ’70s leftovers like Bruce Dern and Geoffrey Lewis reminds you there are better
films you should be watching.Jacobson is not without his good intentions. However aimlessly, he does expose the debilitating influence that myth, especially a particular brand of movie myth, has on impressionable minds. By the final chapter, the film makes a shaky attempt to transform into a quasi-Western among the long-grass of the Angelino hills, and there is a witty aside about the way such a movie backdrop has become infected by a modernist mould of housing estates and freeways. However, you cannot forgive basic ineptitude, no matter how stretched one’s budget or edgily clever one hopes to be; Norton’s transitory facial hair, from abundant to bare across the boundaries of mere scenes, marks possibly the most glaring continuity error in all the tumbling history of cinematic botches...
Never has the term American Independent so obviously been code for wholly miserable experience.