A Subtle Revolutionary

With nuanced performances like that in 'Down in the Valley,' Edward Norton wants to change the world

May 14, 2006|By MICHAEL SRAGOW | MICHAEL SRAGOW,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

NEW YORK -- The consistently brilliant Edward Norton is always talkin' 'bout his generation, whether he's describing himself to the press or acting in his favorite films.

Again and again, he's gone after projects with a dissident edge. He loves to play complex renegades like the reformed white supremacist in American History X (1998), the discontented office rat turned fistfighter in Fight Club (1999), and the convicted drug dealer in 25th Hour (2002). They enable him to put flesh and bone on seminal questions about the way we live now.

Promoting his new film and new favorite, Down in the Valley, in a Manhattan hotel room, Norton asks, "How can anybody figure out who they are or what's best about them when the culture around them gives them no spirituality, no sense of history, no sense of place, no sense of self?"

In an earlier interview, in 1999, he went on a mad, inspired riff about the comeback of the VW beetle as "the perfect example of the baby-boomer generation marketing its youth culture to us as if our happiness is going to come by buying the symbol of their own youth movement." At 36, he's mellowed only slightly.

In Down in the Valley, opening Friday at the Rotunda, he plays a cowpoke named Harlan who strives to bring a rural humanity and grace to the suburban wilds of California's San Fernando Valley. In Norton's view, Harlan is "trying to use his fantasy life to catapult him into something that feels a little more real to him."

Norton has dramatized that attempt repeatedly -- spectacularly -- in his movies.

He did it with feral force in Fight Club, playing a Gen Xer who suffered from near-terminal insomnia, depression and consumerism, and found relief only when he helped organize a counterculture that wasn't about peace and love -- a counterculture organized around a Fight Club, in which alienated guys get in touch with their inner primates via bare-knuckled scraps that leave them scarred and happy.

Norton did it with melancholy in 25th Hour, capturing a mix of accusation and regret that fit both a New Yorker who prematurely messed up his life and a metropolis blindsided by a terrorist attack.

Norton acknowledges, "If I was going to pull a thread through the movies I've done that mean the most to me, I'd say my interest in them comes from a gut feeling about the dysfunctional aspects of our lives." But he wants to address dysfunction with metaphor and magic instead of melodramatic cudgeling. He plays a magician in The Illusionist (due out in August), based on Steven Millhauser's haunting short story, "Eisenheim, the Illusionist," about a fin de siecle conjurer whose mystique threatens Viennese law and order.

Luckily, Norton has the performing potency to attack issues slyly or with subtlety. His surgical intelligence and poetic impulses, and the remarkable eloquence that he brings to his lean body and thin voice, make him an extraordinary actor. Even as a worried man, Norton is a live wire; even when he enacts self-control, he uses brushstrokes to show the pressures that can make a fellow erupt.

In Down in the Valley, his lonesome rider Harlan manages to rope a beautiful teenager (Evan Rachel Wood) and her impressionable kid brother (Rory Culkin) into a Shane-like dreamscape with tragic yet also hopeful results. According to writer-director David Jacobson, Down in the Valley piqued Norton's interest because it appealed both to his appetite for mystery and his ambition to analyze a generation's unease.

The film "doesn't underline and define everything," says Jacobson. "But it also has a sense of spiritual malaise. It depicts young people left to their own devices without mythical leaders -- without any cultural stars like the rock stars of the '60s, who had a real sense of spiritual values to convey to kids. Edward saw that and responded to it."

This urge to resonate with his core audience has made Norton take on movies like Down in the Valley and The Illusionist instead of simply going for big pay-offs with savvy commercial scores like his 2003 hit, The Italian Job.

In The People Vs. Larry Flynt, (1996) he played the attorney for the exultant pornographer behind Hustler, defending his client against one obscenity charge after another. He took the show clear away from Woody Harrelson as Flynt, imbuing arguments like "you and I can pick up Hustler magazine or read it, or throw it in the garbage can if that's where I think it belongs" with a reedy wit and urgency.

And in American History X, he put on 30 pounds lifting weights and invested his rehabilitated hatemonger with a galvanizing tortured gravitas. Norton showed his gift for conveying the power of plain speech when the man explained to his younger brother (Edward Furlong) why he gave up his life of hate: "It's wrong and it was eating me up, it was going to kill me. And I kept asking myself all the time, how did I buy into this [expletive]? It was because I was pissed off, and nothing I ever did took that feeling away."

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