Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley has had a starring role in many films - 'The Karate Kid', 'Fast Times at Ridgemont High', 'Boogie Nights', '2 Days in the Valley' - but American director David Jacobson ('Criminal', 'Dahmer') treads a different route through the freeways and malls that overrun the former farmland in the unsettling 'Down in the Valley'.
When suburban cowboy Harlan Caruthers (Norton) - he claims that he's from South Dakota and that he's never seen the sea - meets rebellious teenager Tobe (Wood), she's swept off her feet. Her impromptu invitation to the beach leads him to ditch his service station job. Hours later they're in bed together. When Harlan comes a-courting the following day, he also charms Tobe's lonely little brother, Lonnie (Culkin), much to the dismay of their tough corrections officer father, Wade (Morse).
Whether spilling their Ecstasy-opened hearts to each other in the bath or going on a romantic horseback ride together, Harlan and Tobe's star-crossed romance is beautifully portrayed but it - and the film's trajectory - soon goes skew-whiff. Wade is initially the only one to see beyond Harlan's innocent country boy façade but even love-struck Tobe starts to have doubts when she hears that Harlan's been teaching Lonnie how to use a gun. From there the focus shifts to Lonnie's friendship with Harlan and all unexpected hell breaks loose.
As he depicts a charismatic stranger infiltrating a contemporary troubled suburban family, Jacobson harks back to the classic Western genre. Working with cinematographer Enrique Chediak, the film is shot in anamorphic widescreen, evoking the vast emptiness of the Valley's rapidly disappearing wide open spaces. There's also a touch of 'Taxi Driver', as Harlan practices his gunplay in the mirror of his dingy motel room.
Edward Norton, as the innocent who turns nasty - a role that is especially reminiscent of his Oscar-nominated role in 'Primal Fear' - is superb. His performance is matched by that of Evan Rachel Wood, who is mesmerising both as a seductive young woman and a vulnerable girl and the first hour of the film, focusing on their relationship, is enthralling. After that, however, 'Down in the Valley' runs out of steam and, although still atmospheric, never fully regains its stride.
A truly intriguing film - and one that raises anticipation for David Jacobson's next turn in the director's chair.