In a Valley of Violence Is a Small Western Packing a Bloody Punch
Funny, exciting, and the best John Travolta performance in years.
Writer/director Ti West’s filmography is populated mostly with dark genre fare of the thrilling and/or horrific variety, but while they typically have moments of humor you’d be hard-pressed to call any of them comedies. The possible exception there is his 2011 chiller, The Innkeepers, which delivers more than enough laughs and smiles to justify the label while also being legitimately scary. I’d argue it’s his best film due in part to the masterful balance in tone he creates throughout.
West’s latest leaves the horror genre behind all together for the dry, deadly desert of the post-Civil War American southwest, but while In a Valley of Violence is a traditional western through and through – perhaps too traditional at times —he once again imbues it with comedy and charisma that work beautifully to elevate the entertainment without stifling the thrills. Make no mistake, this is a small, simple western, but the entertainment it delivers makes it one of the genre’s best of the past few years.
Paul (Ethan Hawke) wants only two things from the world around him – a straight trail south to Mexico and for he and his dog to be left alone. The former requires he pass through the tiny town of Denton, Texas, and it only takes a couple minutes there before someone chooses to deny him the latter. Gilly (James Ransone, at his weasley best) is the big fish in this dusty, microscopic pond, but when he picks a fight with the stranger he ends up embarrassed and bloodied. The marshal (John Travolta), who also happens to be Gilly’s regretful pop, sends Paul on his way, but unable to let the incident stand Gilly and his three underlings track the man and his dog down to get their revenge.
Of course, being the bad guys of the tale, they have no idea what revenge really is… at least until Paul returns to teach them the last lesson of their lives.
The western genre is overflowing with strangers finding trouble in remote and inhospitable towns with stories of revenge being just as frequent, and West’s film makes no real effort to bring more to the narrative table. We’re given hints to Paul’s past involving a murderous stint in the army, and Gilly’s ego-driven persona is straight out of the villainous punk handbook. There’s not much new on either side story-wise or with the characters, and instead the movie just moves from setup to inciting incident to third act violence as we’ve seen a thousand times before.
It’s mildly disappointing to see West’s lack of ambition in regard to the leanness at hand, but while he chooses not to aim higher with his story and scope he finds success in most every other area.
West leaves his penchant for slow-burn buildups behind and gives viewers brief action beats on the way to an exciting and crowd-pleasing final thirty minutes. Characters spit up blood and grit in equal measure, and the violence finds satisfying and moral purpose alongside the suspenseful execution.
The inhabitants of the tale may be fairly one-note, but the cast and West’s script make them appealing through their charisma, wit, and performances. Hawke proves himself a natural for the genre through his casual, scruffy demeanor with a hint of darkness – a discovery that bodes well for the upcoming The Magnificent Seven remake – and Ransone shows his continued mastery of the whiny and explosive punk immune to common sense. Travolta is a supporting player here in most ways, but the fun he’s having in the role is visible and infectious.
You wouldn’t know it by the plot synopsis, but there are two female characters too in the form of sisters Ellen (Karen Gillan) and Mary Anne (Taissa Farmiga). Gillan gets the thankless role of Gilly’s flat fiance, but she inflates its worth through some amusing delivery. Farmiga meanwhile plays something of a love interest, possibly, maybe, but while it’s not given any real weight here she’s an irresistibly bright ball of energy throughout.
All that said of course, the real star of the film is Jumpy, the dog playing Paul’s mutt Abby. She puts other canine thespians to shame and immediately had me thinking Hollywood can finally move forward on that Up the Creek reboot we’ve all been asking for.
Jeff Grace’s score deserves notice too as it works to emulate old-school traditional westerns while finding its own propulsive voice. The percussion moves from ominous to invigorating, and the whole works to craft an atmosphere of a wild and unpredictable world.
In a Valley of Violence is a familiar and slight tale that overcomes those limitations to deliver fantastic entertainment. Heavier, better westerns like The Searchers and Open Range have nothing to fear here as West gives us nothing really to chew on as the credits roll, but that lack of importance doesn’t negate the film’s fun and thrills making this a valley worth visiting. Plus, you know you need to find out if the dog lives.
Related Topics: Fantasia Film Festival