If there is a mantra the movies have taught us, it’s that the easiest way to transform an ordinary or seemingly hapless man into a well-oiled killing machine intent on wiping out everyone is to mess with his vehicle or kill his best girl and or dog. From that single minded theme comes Ti West’s latest film, In a Valley of Violence. And since it’s a Western, set in the town of Denton (Texas?) in the mid nineteenth century, a car is out of the question.
The ordinary man here is Paul (Ethan Hawke), a possible war deserter who happens to camp in the wrong wind-swept patch of land. After effectively showing his quick-wittedness towards a thief, Paul comes into contact with a group of yokels who seem to pride themselves on bullying any strangers to their small canyon town. The early suspense is built upon our knowledge of Paul’s prowess with a gun, leaving everyone else in the film to discover just how deadly he can be.
Led by the loquacious Gilly (James Ransone), Paul soon becomes the aim of the gang’s torment, which doesn’t stop even once he agrees to quietly leave town. The fact that Gilly is also the son of the town’s marshal (John Travolta) infinitely bogs down the cause and effect ratio as well.
The first half of the film establishes the concrete sides of good and evil. Gilly and his troupe, including one of them played by indie director-actor Larry Fessenden, who always brings an off-kilter edge to his roles, certainly make us hate them. The second half devolves into violent revenge mode, the only question being raised as to who (if any) will make it out alive. Unfortunately, there’s not much else to savor in the film.
A supreme idolator of genre, filmmaker West has always managed to infuse his pieces with a wry sense of modernity. In his horror films, especially The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers, he took a well-tread genre and not only elicited genuine scares from it, but captured an atmospheric Polaroid of the original films and their faded glories. That in and of itself felt organic. Attempting to accomplish the same with the Western, he’s failed. Instead of bringing anything new to the table, In a Valley of Violence feels like an inert homage with splashes of (already) retro Tarantino copying a Peckinpah film.
The portions of the film that do work however, lie in the performance of John Travolta. His marshal is acutely aware of the stupidity both sides are slowly sinking into and his attempts at maintaining the peace while asserting his authority as a father-figure are entertaining. His final scene, standing in between two men intent on killing each other, is an exit for the ages.
Also amusing is that aforementioned flash of modernity given to the two lone women in the film, sisters Mary Anne (Taissa Farmiga) and Ellen (Karen Gillan). Just as the battle lines have been drawn in the streets, so is it between the hearts of these two. Ellen is engaged to Gilly while Mary Anne breathlessly falls for the new-in-town drifter Paul after nursing his wounds. The way the two banter and fly around their largely-vacant hotel home, huffing and puffing teenage retorts and jealous glares reminds one of a gloriously staged TV sitcom.
Yet, those fleeting moments of life wedged between the dirge of gallows humor, death and revenge can’t save In a Valley of Violence. Like the stone-faced Paul, it’s a film that starts out one place and ends exactly where you know it will. It’s homage and Western pastiche and that’s all. There’s no “there” there. It’s also a film that deserves its disclaimer that “no animal was harmed during the filming.”
In a Valley of Violence opens in the Dallas/Fort Worth area on Friday, October 21 at the AMC Mesquite 30. It also begins playing on VOD platforms the same day.