I’ve said before numerous times, but for the sake of this review, I’ll say it again: The Western is a genre with an unfortunate reputation. What’s unfortunate about it is that because of the longtime popularity and clear distinctions attached to them, westerns have limited room to explore new territory. This is an association loaded with conventions, which many not only recognize, but downright expect to see whenever they sit down to one of the genre’s many titles. In a Valley of Violence firmly proves these notions to be true with a plot which lets its audience see everything coming from a mile away. However, that’s exactly what those turning up to see the film want, and thankfully for them, that’s just what they’ll get.
Utilizing the traditional new stranger in town motif, In a Valley of Violence opens on a drifter named Paul (Ethan Hawke), a mysterious drifter running from a dark past when he arrives in a nondescript town in the middle of nowhere. While there, Paul encounters two bickering sisters (Taissa Farmiga and Karen Cillian), one of whom is engaged to the hot-tempered Gilly (James Ransone), the town’s deputy, whose father (John Travolta) also happens to be the sheriff. Before he leaves the small town, Paul will unleash a mountain of vengeful violence as he also comes to face his past.
There are virtually almost no surprises to be had throughout most of In a Valley of Violence. Yet that doesn’t mean there isn’t more than enough riches contained within in the film to adequately enjoy it. The movie’s score is fantastic and perfectly evokes the feelings and intensity which that world full of guts, glory and honor gives off. Similarly, the fun opening titles set the overall tone and harkens back to the heydays of the great spaghetti westerns and everything that was operatic about them. At the same time, praise must be given to the very minimalist approach taken with the film. While there isn’t a great amount of grandstanding or theatrics within In a Valley of Violence, the film still retains the right kind of tone needed for a proper genre entry, especially in the haunting flashback images Paul has, which are incredibly well done.
As stated before, In a Valley of Violence sticks firmly to the genre’s proven formula for the most part. For those who love the world of the western and all the archetypes to be found there, the film will satisfy on most every level. The end result is a movie that proves great fun because of the sheer fact that it has been made by people who know and love the genre. The film’s strongest move without question can be seen in the way the story turns at a certain point, exposing Paul’s past. It’s a skillful shift in the plot that succeeds in making Paul the definition of a true anti-hero. Most anyone who has seen a western before can tell right off the bat that the film will not offer much in the way of surprises, but it does offer up the best of the genre’s qualities such as cunning, courage and wit.
While most wouldn’t think it outright, Hawke fits so perfectly into this world. The actor embodies all the traits of the cowboy as movie audiences know such a figure to be, while also bringing forward his character’s torment so easily. Similarly, Farmiga is a great in a role that’s a definite departure for her. It’s a testament to her skills as an actress that she can acquit herself well within this specific genre. Meanwhile, Ransone is completely miscast, making it hard to tell if he’s seen too many westerns or not enough. His moments with Gillan, who plays her role like she’s in a high school production, are especially excruciating. Finally, Travolta enjoys his wonderfully devilish and campy role, having a great deal of fun in what is surely the film’s flashiest character.
Writer/director Ti West should be proud of In a Valley of Violence. Sure, there are certainly times when he should slow down the pace and let the story and its characters flow a little more naturally. Overall however, this is a solidly made western which should please many of the genre’s devoted fans. After all, there’s nothing really for them to do but just relax and soak up what’s on the screen in all its familiar and always welcome glory.