MOVIE REVIEW: In a Valley of Violence


2016 Chicago Critics Film Festival selection


A fascinating movie daydream is playing the “what if” game of imagining well-established filmmakers known for one genre crossing over to try another completely different type of film.  For instance, what would an Alfred Hitchcock comic book film look like or maybe a Christopher Nolan romantic comedy?  Imagine the possibilities, the risks, and the rewards.  It is a pleasure to see directors become prolific by branching out to try new challenges.   For “In a Valley of Violence,” young filmmaker Ti West, a cult master of horror through his films “V/H/S,” “The Innkeepers,” and “The House of the Devil,” tries on the boots, chaps, mythos, tropes, and wide-brim hats of the American Western.  He absolutely aces the exam making a proper, full-bodied Western with style, atmosphere, character depth, and more.

Ethan Hawke is a drifter named Paul traveling through the hot New Mexico desert with his horse and his trusty fly-eating dog Abby.  A pre-credits run-in with a charlatan priest (Burn Gorman) along the trail reveals Paul is a man who means business seeking as little attention as possible.  He is dead set on crossing over to Mexico and leaving the States and his violent past behind.  The priest tells Paul he can save several days travel passing through the nearby town of Denton, but warns him it’s a godless and corrupt ghost town of castoffs from the departed mining work.  Paul elects to pass through town hoping to restock and move on within the day. 

Arriving in Denton, Paul treads lightly hoping to mind his own business, but the rare arrival of a traveler provokes encounter.  Hoping to get a simple drink, he gets caught in tough talk in the saloon with the cocky, gum-flapping resident hard ass of Denton named Gilly, played by James Ransone of the “Sinister” series.  Paul ends up punching Gilly’s lights out in a fair fight that quickly becomes the talk of town and the catalyst of ramifications.  The tricky part is Gilly is a deputy and only son of the town marshal (John Travolta) and fiancé to the town’s hotelier Ellen (“Guardians of the Galaxy” villain and “Doctor Who” favorite Karen Gillan) in this insularly controlled town.  To the silent majority, Paul’s moment of victory over Gilly inspires hope, none greater than with Ellen’s belittled and confined younger sister Mary Anne (Taissa Farmiga of “American Horror Story”).

The marshal meets Paul and easily reads into Paul’s unspoken muddy history.  Recognizing the fair fight and the all-too-common screw-ups of his son, he agrees to call the whole thing square when Paul obliges to immediately return on his way out of town.  With a broken nose and a hot temper underneath the egg of embarrassment on his face, Gilly refuses to let Paul off that easy.  Against his father’s wishes, Gilly and his cronies outnumber Paul at night and twist the proverbial knife with an act of payback that leaves him for dead.  Dusting himself off and rediscovering the killer inside of him, Paul loads up and heads back to Denton for good, old-fashioned Western revenge.

Horror films have given Ti West an enviable skill set as a writer, editor, and director that he brings the Western genre’s buffet table.  Even if you are not a fan of horror films, the expert artists in that field have a sharp eye for subtle details, an ear for absorbing atmosphere, a nose for split-second transitions, and hot touch for tension.  They waste little time and little space to maintain a solid energy level.  Such sensory and topical efficiency is tailor-made for a good Western, especially a revenge one such as this.  All you need is the right catalyst of motivated vengeance and a good filmmaker guides the tumbleweeds, spurs, bullets, and trigger-happy tempers to take it from there. 

Top to bottom, the paths of confrontations and characterization are honed to deadly edges by West’s no-nonsense script.  Ethan Hawke turns down his Linklater loquacious spark to play a steely and vengeful man-of-few-words.   Taissa Farmiga shines in a meaty and progressive female role.  James Ransome gives the hot-headed, mustache-stroking villain archetype a dimension of plain-speaking frustration that is commonly hilarious.  This is, by far, the most engaging and interesting John Travolta has been in years.  By far, Abby, played by YouTube sensation “Jumpy,” steals the show in one of the most incredibly cool and remarkable animal performances ever put on film.

Starting from a kinetic opening credits sequence and powered throughout Jeff Grace’s rambunctious, harpsichord-tinged musical score, West’s chops in this Western playground are impressive and downright fun to watch.  He cleverly subverts the classical Western motifs with a slant and style all his own.  On the page and on the screen, everything may look familiar to other Westerns, but the shades and twists they are given by West and company make them crack like a different whip. 

“In a Valley of Violence” lives up to the promised bloodshed suggested by its title and spins its own brand of tension and, best of all, a frank and bone-dry humor that blows into the whole film.  You will either love the comedic edge or find it a distraction from the revenge.  There is an undeniable panache to the absurdity that makes the film an absolute hoot.  This is the giddy Western Quentin Tarantino wishes he could make while he wastes six hours of our time and stretched disbelief with “Django Unchained” and “The Hateful Eight.”  West’s film zooms to the front of the line ahead of the likes of Tarantino’s duo, “The Salvation,” and “Bone Tomahawk” in a mini-renaissance of Westerns happening right now.

LESSON #1: DON’T FUCK WITH A MAN AND HIS DOG-- "Man's best friend" is exactly that.  A devoted dog can be a man's closest soul of connection and companionship.  A man's dog is more than a pet and as valuable as a family member.  The loyalty between them goes both ways when threatened.

LESSON #2: CONTROL YOUR MEN-- All of the conflict of "In a Valley of Violence" wouldn't happen if the marshal could simply control his men, including Gilly.  If you're the boss, be the boss.  Enforce your rule and decisions.  Rein your people in.

LESSON #3: THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A KILLER AND A THIEF-- The men in this Western can be sorted into two groups.  Everyone fashions themselves to be tough as leather, but their motivations are different.  The thieves represent the people who are selfish, those that think, act, take, and even kill solely for themselves.  The true killers are the ones that act with resolve, integrity, and know the weight of the violence they wield.  There's a distinct difference.