Edward Norton is generally regarded as one of the finest actors of his generation, an heir to the likes of De Niro and Brando, with two Oscar nominations to his name by the age of 30, and someone who can turn in performances of great subtlety even with rather sub-par material.

Sadly, the past couple of years have seen him working with far more bad material than good, from the dire remake of The Italian Job to Ridley Scott’s disappointing Kingdom of Heaven. With Down in the Valley he has finally returned to a script and a character that are worthy of him, arguably for the first time since 1999’s Fight Club.

Here Norton is Harlan, a drifter cowpoke who hooks up with rebellious teenager Tobe, played by the very promising Evan Rachel Wood. But as is the way with such things, everything is not as it seems. Although Harlan seems genuinely gentle and carefree, how many real cowboys are there in 21st Century California? What is he hiding, and does he even know he’s hiding it?

With the film’s overriding sense of mournfulness and central theme of possible amnesia and events unknown, the most striking similarity is to Wim Wenders’ classic Paris, Texas. The tone is almost identical, aided greatly by some beautiful camerawork from writer/director David Jacobson and his cinematographer, Enrique Chediak. This helps emphasise the bleached-out world of the deserts familiar from innumerable westerns, while setting the film almost entirely among the suburbs and motorways of southern California’s densely-packed commuter belt.

A horseback ride along a concrete-lined urban riverbed, with Norton decked out in full cowboy regalia of stetson and blue jeans, is just one of the film’s striking images – at once archetypal and strange.

This subtle blend of the contemporary world with the cinemascapes of movie myth further underscores the central confusion of who, precisely, Norton’s character is – and how he has become that way. Why would a young man seemingly retreat so fully into a fantasy world?

Whether he is a danger is not really an issue for the filmmakers, although it most certainly is to his new girlfriend’s sheriff father. It is how he came to be as he is, not what he is, that is the main concern.

At a time when cinemas are beginning to be packed out by the summer blockbuster crowds and Hollywood’s annual big budget bonanza starts to kick off, the fact that Norton is starring here should lead to a wider audience for a movie that is very much of the indy school in its attitudes and atmosphere.

Films that force their audiences to think have begun to make a comeback in recent years after nearly a decade in which special effects and all-star casts have dominated, and this is a prime example of the emerging trend. Although there are a few concessions to Hollywood clich├ęs along the way, this intelligent, moving film is a cut above the usual summer fare, and well worth checking out.