[NOTE: This is a re-post of Perri’s review from the SXSW Film Festival; In a Valley of Violence hits theaters—in limited release—this weekend]
When you’ve got Ti West behind a movie called In a Valley of Violence, it’s only natural to assume it’s horror. Thanks to films like House of the Devil and The Sacrament, West’s name has become synonymous with the slow burn format, letting nightmarish scenarios simmer before unleashing some serious third act chaos. Not only does In a Valley of Violence not fit that mold, but it also isn’t really a horror movie at all. Yes, it’s got blood and brutality, but West is far more focused on embracing the Western genre and highlighting the unique and unexpected humor in the film.
The movie stars Ethan Hawke as Paul, a man making his way through the Texas desert with his dog Abbie in an effort to get to Mexico. He could take the long way around and steer clear of other people, but instead decides to ride his horse into the valley and stop in the town of Denton to grab some water and recharge a bit. He makes a point to keep to himself, but a hotheaded local deputy named Gilly (James Ransone) just can’t help himself. Gilly’s challenge to brawl with Paul right in the middle of town triggers a chain reaction of violent behavior that ultimately puts Paul on a merciless revenge mission.
Hawke is perfectly cast as Paul. He’s quiet, confident and deadly, but he’s also a reasonable man who has absolutely no intention of harming anyone – that is unless a person threatens him or someone he loves. Around other people, he’s a steely-eyed, unfriendly stranger, but when he’s all alone out in the desert, Paul reveals his incredibly sweet, charming connection with his dog. Abbie is a great guard dog and loving companion. Watching her do tricks, like wrapping herself in a blanket before bed, never gets old but some of the most impressive material featuring Abbie is her conversations with Paul. No, Abby doesn’t talk (it’s not that kind of movie) but Paul does speak at length to her, and Jumpy (the dog’s real name) is so well trained that she actually gives the impression that she’s listening and reacting. Animal lovers will undoubtedly get a kick out of the performance, but more importantly, her effect on Paul helps make him a more accessible main character.
The other side of the story puts the focus on Gilly and the residents of Denton, a very small crowd due to the fact that the local mine went dry. Gilly is an entitled jerk who goes above and beyond to lure Paul out of the bar and into the streets for that brawl, and Ransone revels in the opportunity to showcase his showmanship. This is also where the film’s unique tone and approach to the traditional Western comes into focus. One might expect one man to call out another and then immediately duel – Gilly certainly does – but when Paul attempts to ignore his antics, Gilly resorts to pathetic and hilarious measures to coax out his target.
Karen Gillan also earns quite a few laughs as Gilly’s loud, obnoxious and very superficial fiancée who enjoys heckling the newcomer on behalf of her man. Her sister Mary Anne (Taissa Farmiga) is a talker as well, but she’s certainly the more noble and sensible of the two. When the film first teases a budding romantic connection between Mary Anne and Paul, it’s a bit much because the two just met and there’s a significant age gap, but as the movie progresses you’ll be surprised to find yourself warming up to the idea due to Hawke and Farmiga’s chemistry and their characters’ dire circumstances.
We get even more spot-on casting with John Travolta as The Marshal who also happens to be Gilly’s father. Gilly is completely blinded by his massive ego, but his father is surprisingly understanding and level headed. He isn’t about to kill Paul for breaking his son’s nose, but he also knows it’s important to set an example and force Paul to leave town for what he’s done. Travolta sells The Marshall as an imposing and honorable man, and that combination winds up sparking some of the strongest comedic material in the tail end of the film. In a Valley of Violence will likely have you laughing out loud, but not because of goofy behavior or clever one-liners. The large majority of the humor is directly connected to the fact that it’s a film about men who think they’re your quintessential Western gunslingers, but then quickly come to learn that they’re in over their heads.
As is the case with West’s other films, In a Valley of Violence is wonderfully shot, dishing out one picturesque frame after another, all of which ooze with devotion to the genre. Cinematographer Eric Robbins also deserves a great deal of credit for capturing a succession of visuals that quickly establish the geography of the town, something that’s essential for the final shootout. The movie also features a fantastic score from Jeff Grace that seamlessly shifts from supporting the humor to building suspense.
In a Valley of Violence is a refreshing and highly entertaining blend of thrills, laughs and Western essentials that proves West has some serious range in a manner that’s somewhat reminiscent of when Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett veered away from straight horror and embraced extreme violence and thrills in 2014’s The Guest. In the Valley of Violence could and should be a game changer for West, hopefully paving the way to more opportunities that let him go big and create unique films.
In a Valley of Violence will be released October 21, 2016.