Low-budget filmmaker Ti West won me over with two very understated and atmospheric horror films (House of the Devil and The Innkeepers) and then lost me again with The Sacrament and those portmanteau films ABCs of Death and V/H/S to which he contributed. But I have remained firm in my opinion that he has the ability to give a fresh take on very familiar filmic territory. For his latest film, In a Valley of Violence, he turns his attentions to the well-tread territory of the western, pulling elements of Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci… but with way dumber characters.
The opening credits of In a Valley of Violence purposely recalls the splashy red-and-white pop art credits of Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars, but aside from that and score by Jeff Grace, very little about the movie has the same dialogue-free punchiness of any of the Dollars Trilogy. Half of the movie feels very somber and tense while much of the rest feels like broad, almost anachronistic comedy, wherein pretty much every character aside from Ethan Hawke‘s drifting former soldier is some degree of moron, often veering into parody. But that’s almost the weird charm of everything.
Hawke plays a man who is trying to make his way to Mexico to fulfill a promise to his wife. His only companions are an incredibly smart and obedient dog named Abby and an immeasurably patient horse. After deciding to make a stop at the town of Denton, a near-deserted stretch of prairie on the way through a valley to the border, Hawke is harassed by a gang of ruffians, led by the 1800s frat-boy-esque Gilly (James Ransone). Hawke beats him in a fair fight which draws the admiration of local hotelier Mary Ann (Taissa Farmiga), the outrage of her sister Ellen (Karen Gillan), who is Gilly’s pampered fiance, and the unwanted attention of the Marshal (John Travolta). Gilly’s the Marshal’s deputy and also his son, so naturally he can’t let even a fairly-won fight go totally unnoticed.
The set-up for the film could not be more by the book and the eventual drive for Hawke’s character to seek and obtain revenge is equally highly pedestrian, but what sets the movie apart is the way Hawke portrays the gunman. He’s tough as nails and can be quite ruthless, but there’s a pathos to him that we don’t see very often in this genre. He can’t speak to people very well, but he talks to the dog quite a bit and pours his heart out to her, likely because she can’t respond and/or judge. He blames himself for his lot in life and would just as soon run away from any further problems. He only gets into scrapes when his animals are threatened, and he even gives the aggressors many, many opportunities to turn back, no harm done. I also really appreciated that he’s not a superhuman gunman; he makes mistakes and really only fires a couple of bullets at anybody. He’s not Clint Eastwood or Charles Bronson, unloading a six-shooter into a cadre of thugs in record time. He’s sloppy, but gets the job done.
Aside from Hawke, whom I think does a particularly great job (and he continues his streak as Blumhouse’s solid go-to star), Travolta turns in one of his best performances in a long time, as the aging yet clearly dangerous Marshal, who equally doesn’t want a fight and is smart enough to realize Hawke isn’t someone to mess with. The Marshal just has the bad luck of having such a stupid hothead for a son. Speaking of, Ransone (whom you probably know as Ziggy from the second season of The Wire) gives a performance that feels like it doesn’t even belong in this movie. It’s in him and Gillan that we get most of the broader comedy. I applaud West’s desire to have such drastic style differences, but you definitely need to buy in to the whole thing to fully enjoy it.
Overall, West does a great job with In a Valley of Violence and he manages to make it look as good as he can with the budgetary limitations. His script doesn’t always work, but it definitely has more enjoyable bits than duff ones. If you enjoy westerns, and enjoy new riffs on the time-tested genre, it’s a good, weird time.
3 out of 5 Burritos