Studio: Focus World
Director: Ti West
Writer: Ti West
Producer: Jason Blum, Jacob Jaffke, Peter Phok
Stars: Ethan Hawke, Taissa Farmiga, James Ransone, Karen Gillan, John Travolta, Toby Huss, Larry Fessenden, Tommy Nohilly, Burn Gorman
A drifter and his dog become targets of a revenge plot after inadvertently humiliating a deputy in a dying frontier town.
A thick streak of Sergio Leone runs through “In A Valley of Violence,” though horseback drifter Paul comes from a different breed of isolated outlaw than the Man with No Name. Both are business-minding men of few words out to avoid confrontation until confrontation stops returning the courtesy. Yet whereas the gruff anti-heroism of the Man with No Name’s gunslinging is best admired from a cautious distance, Paul’s brooding moodiness comes with an affability endearing to anyone hopeful for the heroism of a mysterious outsider.
Gilly Martin, deputy in the dying frontier town of Denton, doesn’t see it that way. When an effort to entertain his huckleberry henchmen at Paul’s expense backfires into high noon humiliation, Gilly aims to get even. Paul only cares about being on his way to Mexico. The town marshal, Gilly’s paternally frustrated father, puts Paul back on that trail early by booting him from town before any more trouble is stirred.
Being a temperamental bully, Gilly can’t let the public besting go unanswered. With his toadie cronies in tow, the dimwitted deputy stages a dark of night ambush that leaves Paul for dead. Trouble is, Paul isn’t. Once he recovers, it comes time for Paul to return to Denton to stage a deadly assault of his own.
“In a Valley of Violence” is cut from a common revenge western cloth, replete with a boilerplate assortment of dusty street duels, snake oil hucksters, nervous bartenders, and stiff-lipped ladies in crinoline skirts. Setups, scenes, and themes inspired by films like “3:10 to Yuma” and “High Plains Drifter” to everything in between and on both sides insert influence everywhere.
That’s how writer/director Ti West intends it. Being wholly original is not the story’s chief objective. Here, archetypal personalities and plots have a primary purpose of servicing smart characterizations through powered performances, which is precisely what “In a Valley of Violence” delivers: exciting ensemble entertainment from a completely charismatic cast.
As is routinely the case with a Ti West film, characters are key and atmosphere is king. Developmental dialogue and deliberate pacing are always in play, meaning if you’ve never had patience for stomaching the signature slow-burn style of West’s genre movies, you’re unlikely to find a reprieve from that tempo in his freshman western.
West cuts a unique path through previously trodden territory by adhering to established cinematic conventions, yet concurrently subverting them slightly for a personalized touch. The result is a film recognizable as feeling familiar while simultaneously seeming modern with its willingness to bend rigid rules. This approach remains respectful while affording everyone opportunities to cut from custom without being overly indulgent. Even when West affords himself a Wilhelm Scream for the presumed sake of filmic fun, it comes with a muffle to make you somewhat uncertain if you actually heard it or not.
What impresses most about “In a Valley of Violence” is West’s confidence to challenge his filmmaking comfort zones and by extension, the enthusiasm with which the cast strives to realize his vision. West too eagerly allows needles to peak into red zones when performances ache to be queued to slightly unsynched calibrations of wide-eyed or loud-voiced. But everyone on both sides of the lens seems comfortable coloring occasionally outside the lines by letting vivid portrayals out to play.
Ethan Hawke has a much kinder, less crusty screen presence than Clint Eastwood, yet only enough in this instance to layer a dimension not usually seen in Wild West protagonists. Paul would come across as a completely different person if played by any other actor using the same script. Mental memories of Hawke’s previous roles accompany Paul’s presence in a way that establishes a unique persona perfectly suited to Paul’s alternately hard and soft complexities.
As Denton’s resident marshal, John Travolta adds the same sort of electric energy to “In A Valley of Violence” that he gave to “Pulp Fiction.” Travolta’s teeth gnash hungrily all over the character, knowing when to pull up short of becoming campy. Travolta channels more than a mite of Gene Hackman in “Unforgiven” as the kind of veteran lawman who appears effectual until he actually has something substantial to do. Possibly good, possibly bad, his easygoing nature inspires one to be on his side while his sometimes seething smile signals he simply can’t be trusted.
James Ransone excels at playing shifty snots begging for a comeuppance punch and his terrific turn as Gilly is Exhibit A. Taissa Farmiga also holds her own as an underage romantic interest with moxie to match her monologues about Paul giving up on himself when pretending everyone else has given up on him.
Virtually stealing the show is the surprisingly complete character created from Paul’s always animated sidekick, his faithful dog Abby. Handled by the same trainer responsible for Jack in “The Artist,” Abby ranks right up there with Asta of “The Thin Man” and Toto from “The Wizard of Oz” as one of the most memorable movie dogs of all time.
Humorous without being outright comedic, “In a Valley of Violence” is nonetheless a western to be taken seriously. While not as grim or as brutal as its contemporaries “Bone Tomahawk” (review score) and “The Hateful Eight,” enough bloodshed and shock complement the conversation and characterizations to make a meaningful mark as a sometimes quiet and often violent movie tinged with horror, heart, intelligence, and intensity.
Review Score: 80