In this modern-day western fable, Harlan (Edward Norton) invades the life of teenage Tobe (Evan Rachel Wood), and also has a deep effect upon her dominating, deeply disapproving father, Wade (David Morse), and lonely little brother Lonnie (Rory Culkin). Seemingly the dream lover right out of the Old, rather than New, Hollywood-where the film is set-Harlan hides a dark past and an even darker secret nature.

There are certain rare films which, through a felicitous combination of strong direction and luminously right acting, immediately sweep you away on a true journey of the imagination. Such a film is Down in the Valley: However little you may know about these characters, you care deeply about them and fear for them, so volatile, spiritually bereft and tense is the modern world in which they move. Writer-director David Jacobson surely knows how to spin a tale which, apart from its basic conceptual kinship to classic western films, is wholly original and deeply prescient about the darker shoals of human nature. With the aid of Enrique Chediak's superb cinematography, he finds poetry in Los Angeles' urban blight, especially in Harlan's first view of a curled-up Tobe, through the rear window of the car in which she and her friends are joyriding to the beach. He skillfully builds up an excruciating tension involving Wade's angrily controlling nature and the dire presence of guns in the house, while sensitively addressing the sadness of Lonnie's existence-the family odd man out-and also reveling in the romantic euphoria of an Ecstasy-fueled night on the town with Tobe's giggling, feckless posse. Finally, Jacobson throws in a real plot twist in the film's denouement which may strain some viewers' patience but, for this one, worked completely as a cinematic coup de foudre of romantic audaciousness, where Harlan gets to enter into the western myth which has always consumed him.

Norton gives his most charismatic, affecting performance yet, particularly evoking the young, sizzlingly talented Paul Newman in his famously iconic "H" series of films: Hud, Hombre and The Hustler. Wood proves herself one of the loveliest actresses on the screen today, with an uncanny mix here of willful strength and plangent delicacy. Morse skillfully suggests ambivalent psychological depths, not to mention being completely convincing as a hard-toiling cop. Culkin is heartbreakingly real, a portrayal that should make every negligent parent rush home and embrace that unregarded "middle child" in their midst.

-David Noh