It’s difficult not to feel a little uneasy when Tobe Sommers (Evan Rachel Wood), a high school senior from the San Fernando Valley, picks up easy going Harlan (Ed Norton) at a gas station and flirts shamelessly with him at the beach. Despite Harlan’s apparent laid-back nature, the age difference between him and Tobe causes her father Wade (the always excellent David Morse) to be immediately suspicious of his motives. There’s more than a hint of Lolita about the very young-looking Tobe, and is an early hint that this film isn’t destined for a happy ending.
Harlan, with more than a whiff of James Dean about his quiff, seems to have stepped out of the Wild West, with his ranching skills, cowboy hat and twin holstered pistols. But it quickly transpires that his story of coming from South Dakota may not be true, and his insouciant naïvety masks a dangerous and delusional fantasist.
Harlan develops an obsession with Tobe, befriends her younger brother Lonnie (Rory Culkin) and believes they can all run away together to start a new life. But things start to unravel when Harlan gets wasted in his motel room following a confrontation with Wade and shoots a mirror. The motel manageress throws him out and Harlan starts living rough, turning to petty crime to stay alive. But his determination to be reunited with Tobe leads to a bloody tragedy befitting a modern-day Western.
Writer/Director David Jacobson and cinematographer Enrique Chediak turn the bleached bones of San Fernando’s anonymous freeways, intersections and culverts into a modern day desert wasteland. The movie is shot in anamorphic widescreen to lend it a sense of the flat emptiness that is typical of the Western, but makes the urban setting seem alien and off-kilter.
Norton, who co-produced Down in the Valley, is never less than superb, giving a finely nuanced performance that strikes the perfect balance between mental instability and plausibility. Evan Rachel Wood is fantastic, too, gradually realising that things with Harlan are not what they seem, but refusing to accept the inevitable.
Bruce Dern, a veteran of many Westerns including Hang ‘Em High (1968) and The Cowboys (1972), has a cameo as Charlie, a volatile rancher who owns a horse that Harlan is fond of stealing and riding through the Valley.
Jacobson takes a bag of genres including the Dysfunctional Family and the Western, gives it an almighty shake and pours the results onto the cinema screen. It’s a brave movie that doesn’t always work—especially when Harlan and Lonnie are on the run from Wade and end up in a Wild West film set in the middle of nowhere—but is darkly compulsive viewing for its duration. The movie’s producers have taken a gamble; and it’s one that on balance, and rather unexpectedly, has paid off.