The Western genre has found new life in recent years, and though filmmaker Ti West is probably better known for his low budget horror films, he too has now made the bold leap into the classic cinematic form with the appropriately-titled In a Valley of Violence.
Ethan Hawke plays the stereotypical lone gunman wandering across the desert with his dog Abbie. They’re on their way to Mexico when they encounter a soused Irish preacher (Burn Gorman) who tries to rob them. After setting him straight, Hawke’s character (who we learn later is named Paul) enters the nearby ghost town of Denton for lodging and a bath. There, he has a run-in with the local Marshal’s son Gilly (James Ransome), but Paul gets the best of him before being driven out of town by the Marshall (John Travolta). In Denton, Paul also encounters the amorous Mary Anne (Taissa Farmiga), who wants nothing more than for Paul to take her out of that town.
That night, as Paul and Abbie camp outside town, Gilly and his men sneak into their camp and ambush them, making a seeming killing stroke. The problem is that they didn’t make sure Paul was dead, so he returns to town with vengeance on his mind.
In some ways, this revenge-fueled Western may be exactly what you expect from Ti West. Coming so closely after Tarantino’s terrific Western The Hateful Eight, as well as last year’s Slow West, obviously doesn’t do West many favors. But even so, his first attempt at the genre does remain fairly faithful to why Westerns are so much fun, including many of the most enjoyable tropes. He also gives it a lighter tone, especially with the man and his dog nature of the film’s opening.
The film has a lot of things that really stand out, including West’s script and the terrific casting, particularly of Hawke and Travolta. Yet, Ransome is similarly so slick and sleazy as the main bad guy that this film seems like a breakout role for him. Some of the cast is more expected like West’s frequent collaborator Larry Fessenden, but even he does some fantastic things to make Gilly’s henchman Roy more memorable.
At first, the amount of overacting and scenery chewing from the supporting players around Hawke’s steadfast and laid-back performance seems over-the-top and even off-putting, especially Karen Gillan as Gilly’s girlfriend. But you do adjust to it after a while once you realize West is deliberately trying to instill humor into the violence. In that sense, the film is quite hilarious and on par with Tarantino’s recent work without deliberately copying shots from Western classics like The Hateful Eight often does.
Hawke has the misfortune of having so many scenes with his scene-stealing canine partner, a lovable mutt named Jumpy, that whenever the dog is off-screen the audience is as aggravated as any gunslinger. It makes every death at Paul’s hands pay off in an even bigger way, which is why West’s movie is so well suited for watching with a large audience.
West’s biggest ally is Jeff Grace and his terrific score, which remains faithful to the best of the Spaghetti Westerns. It also never gets in the way of West’s fantastic dialogue or any of the performances.
For the most part, In a Valley of Violence goes out of its way to remain faithful to the best Westerns, but brings enough of Ti West’s distinct voice—as channeled through his terrific cast—to make it stand apart and equal to the other recent revisionist takes on the genre.
After playing SXSW, BamCinemafest and Fantasia Film Festival, In a Valley of Violence will be release theatrically by Focus World in October.