Everyday, people around me bitch and moan about the state of American cinema. They whine that there haven't been any real auteurs since the '70s, they complain about Tom Cruise, and they act like there's hasn't been a good American film since Mean Streets. To these people, I say: bullshit. If you look at the flipside of the summer blockbuster coin, it would appear that we're in the midst of an amazing resurgence of indie filmmaking. The past year alone has turned up incredible smalls films such as Me and You and Everyone We Know, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, Last Days, and Grizzly Man. And now, the compelling, psychological Down in the Valley.

Writer/director David Jacobson comes out of nowhere (his last film was a 2002 flick about Jeffrey Dahmer) with a beautifully sinister and metaphorical movie about the West, love, trust, reinvention, and menace. Edward Norton stars as Harlan, a South Dakota transplant in a cowboy hat pumping gas in the smoggy San Fernando Valley. One day, a carload of teens comes through the station, and Tobe (Evan Rachel Wood) invites Harlan to visit the ocean with them. Romance ensues, and although Tobe is entranced by Harlan's aw-shucks country persona, her corrections-officer father Wade (David Morse) isn't. Aside from the 15-year age gap between his daughter and this dusty stranger, Wade distrusts Harlan on a deeper, instinctive level, which only makes Tobe love him more. Soon, Wade's suspicions are confirmed, as we slowly see the chinks in the armor of Harlan's identity. We see him in private moments at home, getting high and playing with guns; we notice a Black Flag tattoo (on a South Dakota ranch hand?)—soon, he and Tobe are arrested at gunpoint for what seems like a pathological theft.

From here, Down in the Valley descends into a taut psychological drama, and slowly veers toward an allegorical tale about the myth of the American West. Although it feels about 15 minutes too long, and there are one or two slight imperfections, this is one of those rare, astonishingly direct, thoughtful films with all the complexities of a great novel. So rather than bitching about the omnipresence of The Da Vinci Code this summer, do yourself a favor and step into David Jacobson's Valley, where you're free to reemerge as anyone you want.