In a Valley of Violence marks Ti West’s effort to flex his directorial muscles, moving away from the horror films he is so synonymous with (The House of the Devil, The Innkeepers) to give us his take on the Western, a genre that has seen something of a resurgence recently with films such as Slow West, Bone Tomahawk, and The Hateful Eight.
We meet a mysterious drifter, Paul (Ethan Hawke) who, with his dog Abbie, are making their way towards Mexico, determined to begin a new life and escape a haunting past. They’re forced to stop in the town of Denton, a place know to locals as “the valley of violence,” with the local marshal (John Travolta) and his subordinates exerting totalitarian control over the town. While replenishing supplies, an encounter between Paul and a band of thugs in the saloon spirals out of control and has deeper repercussions as their leader Gilly (James Ransone) turns out to be the marshal’s son. After being disciplined with a swift right hook for his embarrassment of Gilly, Paul is sent on his way; however the gang decides to mete out their retribution and against the marshal’s wishes follow him and exact punishment in the middle of the night. After being left at the bottom of a ravine, presumed dead, Paul awakens to find he has one thing left in his possession: revenge.
The first half of the film adheres largely to Western traditions, as the lonesome traveler painted with shades of grey is introduced. We glean insights into his character from an encounter with a dubious Priest but moreso from moments with his traveling companion, Abby. These provide some of the more endearing moments of the film as he reflects on his past, present, and future. It’s an understated but effective performance from Hawke and an incredible one from his canine co-star. The second half of the film kicks into motion after Paul’s quiet brooding nature clashes with the loud, brash behavior of some local thugs. What begins as a charming, quietly humorous period piece takes on a different energy and plunges into a emotionally driven search for revenge.
Hawke and Travolta’s presence gives West a sprinkling of stardust for his feature, but in no way does it overwhelm it. Instead both slip into their roles with ease and give effective reminders of their talents. An adorably bubbly Taissa Farmiga plays Mary-Anne, an admirer of Paul, while her sister Ellen is brought to life with a delightfully fussy hysteria by Karen Gillan. James Ransone’s Gilly is a loud braggart, a counterpoint to Paul who teeters on the comical while conveying an unpredictable threat. Huss, Fessenden, and Sweeney do well with limited screentime to flesh out their members of the gang, and Burn Gorman is a welcome addition as the grimy wandering priest. But the real standout is Jumpy the dog. Not just with his repertoire of tricks but with the bond that is built up between him and Paul that is crucial to the film’s initial charm, investment in a brooding protagonist and acceptance of the unfettered retribution unleashed in the final act.
At times the dialogue has a tendency to ramble on a little too long, the quicker quips landing more solidly than the more verbose dialogue. The latter also seems to rob some of the last act’s shootout scenes of some of their impact. But these flaws are minor when taking the film as a whole. More than anything, In the Valley of Violence shows West’s reverence for the Western genre, the film oozes authenticity throughout from its aesthetic, sound design, casting, direction and even a bombastic Morricone-esque score from Jeff Grace.
Perhaps no higher compliment can be paid than how easily the film nestles amongst the Westerns it pays such respect to, classics from Ford, Leone, and Hawks, while remaining undeniably a Ti West film. An old-fashioned but fresh take on the genre with great performances, bags of charm and authenticity, and a finale that delivers a bloody flourish.