We take a look at In a Valley of Violence and Blood Father.
Genre film festivals are often among my favorites because they focus on the kind of movies typically absent from theaters ‐ the odd, the disturbing, the foreign. Film lovers in Toronto know what I’m talking about as they’re now on day four of the 11th Annual Toronto After Dark Film Festival.
Nine nights of features and shorts celebrating the dark and the weird, and while I’m not there physically I’m there in spirit. The three films playing today are Kill Command, In a Valley of Violence, and Blood Father. I haven’t seen the first film, but my reviews of the other two are below.
Toronto After Dark Film Festival 2016 runs October 13–21, follow our coverage here.
In a Valley of Violence
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. But it does it so damn well.
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 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 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.
[Note: My review of In a Valley of Violence originally ran during this year’s Fantasia Film Festival.]
If alternate universes existed I’d like to think that in one of them Mel Gibson is still a well-liked and bankable star delivering darkly comic action gems like Payback or legitimately great thrillers like Ransom to appreciative theatrical audiences. Barring that fantasy world though, if the only Gibson we have onscreen is the one occasionally showing up in fun, off the radar action flicks like Get the Gringo and his latest, Blood Father, then I’ll happily accept that too.
John Link (Gibson) is an alcoholic ex-con who’s two years and counting into both freedom and sobriety. He lives on the outskirts of nowhere in a small desert community that sees him attending AA meetings and working as a tattoo artist. His daughter Lydia (Erin Moriarty) ran away from Link’s ex-wife years ago, but a frantic call from her sees father and daughter reunited for a brief spell before the trouble she’s involved in comes knocking on his trailer door.
There’s more to the initial setup, but it’s not all that necessary for me to write and for you to read ‐ the film plays out from here pretty much exactly as you’d expect plot-wise. The script by Peter Craig and Andrea Berloff (from Craig’s novel) lacks any real surprises and instead focuses its effort on hitting generic story beats with a terrific lead character at its center. Director Jean-Francois Richet (Mesrine, Assault on Precinct 13 reboot) takes these basic thrills though and turns them into a series of hard-hitting, smartly-crafted, practical action sequences, and cinematographer Robert Gantz captures it all it against the desert’s stark yellows and reds. Shootouts, a motorcycle chase, and other physical antics keep the energy and entertainment up, but the key to the film’s success rests heavily on Gibson’s tanned and tattooed shoulders.
Thankfully for those of us who’ve missed him onscreen he’s as cantankerous, captivating, and capable as he ever was. An introductory scene sees him regretting past transgressions and broken relationships at his AA meeting, and it’s easy to see shades of autobiography in his repentance. Gibson carries the emotion through Link’s discovery that his daughter’s safe ‐ immediately followed by the realization that she’s in deadly danger ‐ and it serves to fuel the main character’s motivation beyond simple plot mechanics. We know this father is going to fight to protect his daughter, but Gibson gives what would otherwise be a generic character heart and gravitas.
Link has been living peacefully on parole, and Lydia’s troubles ‐ from drugs to guns ‐ all threaten to see him tossed back into jail. There’s no doubt that he’ll step up to help, but he does so with a humorous and begrudging vocabulary even as shots are being fired around him. He’s more than capable of serious drama (The River) and broad comedy (Maverick), but Gibson’s patented blend of manic, insane energy is where he’s most comfortable and viewers are most rewarded. The film is fine, but he makes it a joy.
The rest of the cast is limited ‐ a brief drive into Los Angeles aside this is a desert-set adventure ‐ but most give solid turns in small roles. Diego Luna plays Lydia’s angry ex while William H. Macy is tasked as Link’s friend and sponsor. The main draw on the supporting side though is Michael Park as Link’s old friend turned Nazi memorabilia re-seller. His delivery and mannerisms are every bit as memorable as you’d expect.
Less successful, and the film’s biggest weakness, is Moriarty. Her character is no help as she’s tasked with dialogue that constantly feels anything but natural, but Moriarty’s performance strands her as the film’s single element that clearly doesn’t belong here. She’s never convincing as a young woman who’s been a part of such a dangerous lifestyle, and her reactions never match what’s going on around her. Moriarty’s like a toddler who’s wandered into a high school cafeteria ‐ she’s cute but woefully out of place and unprepared for her surroundings.
Blood Father survives the speed bump that is Moriarty thanks to its look, feel, and the propulsive force that is Mel Gibson. Low-key action junkies will be satisfied with this 88-minute romp, but Gibson’s fans will be showered with much more.
[Note: My review of Blood Father originally ran during its limited theatrical release.]
Toronto After Dark Film Festival 2016 runs October 13–21, follow our coverage here.
Related Topics: Film Festivals