Down in the Valley (15)

What your family needs: a sharp-shooting cowpoke
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The Independent Culture

Down in the Valley is a potent indie drama about what happens if you think you're living in a cowboy film when you're actually living on the outskirts of Los Angeles.

The title might suggest a green and pleasant land, but the place it refers to is the San Fernando Valley, seen here as a fantastically run-down suburb, netted by overhead power lines and sliced in half by a 12-lane freeway. It's there that two bored teenagers, Evan Rachel Wood and her younger brother, Rory Culkin, share a bungalow. Their mother is long gone and their father, David Morse, is too busy working as a prison warder to see much of them, so they're both susceptible to the attentive handsome stranger who catches Wood's eye at a petrol station.

The stranger, played by Edward Norton, is a ranch-hand from South Dakota, and proud of it. Never without his ten-gallon hat, and with courtly manners that are a century out of date, he's an exotic creature in the kids' car-clogged world. To Wood, he's a sexy free spirit who takes her horse-riding over the hills and buys her a polka-dot dress. To Culkin, he's an outlaw gunslinger who teaches him how to fire a Colt 45. As their relationships heat up, we think we're watching a breathless erotic romance combined with a touching buddy movie, all shot in the hazy, dreamlike style of 1970s New Hollywood.

It's some time before the film progresses in stealthy steps towards thriller territory, eventually confirming that the only reason Norton can connect so tightly with a pair of teenagers is that he's an overgrown child himself. Down in the Valley is similar in many ways to last week's The King, and like that film it loses its way in its violent second half, when it becomes all too blatant in its tributes to Badlands and Taxi Driver.

But there are some nuanced scenes beforehand that explore the dangerous seductiveness of the Wild West myth. David Jacobson, the writer-director, gets his characters just right. We see that the teenagers' dad isn't an ogre, he's just a man with too much on his plate - and, crucially, a man with a collection of antique guns.

But we also see how he could appear to be an ogre to his impressionable offspring. And while the teenagers are never gullible or rebellious enough to lose our sympathies, Norton's hick prince plays on their adolescent grudges with an earnestness which would be impossible to resist. A friend who's not all there is better than a parent who's not there at all.