Cast: Ethan Hawke, Taissa Farmiga, James Ransone, Karen Gillan, John Travolta
Director: Ti West
Running time: 1 hour 43 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
If we've learned anything from disenfranchised loners with a long history of brutal killing streaks, you best not fuck with a man's dog. The poor bastards laid waste by Keanu Reeve's head wounds throughout the vigilante action thriller John Wick didn't heed such warnings, and apparently, there's room for small town bumpkins to make similar errors in writer-director Ti West's latest film, In a Valley of Violence. Of course, Ethan Hawke's mysterious drifter and his adorable traveling canine aren't looking for trouble, but as these types of things often go, trouble finds them, and all will not end well for those seeking to harm an innocent animal.
West has always been interested in the tenuous line between artificiality and realism, and this tension, seen in films such as House of the Devil and The Inkeepers, has made him one of the more compelling young genre filmmakers in recent years. Mostly known as a horror director, West has an uncanny ability for utilizing pastiche as a way for opening up the authenticity of his characters; in a way, stock tropes are a jumping off point for emotional and psychological concerns. 2014's The Sacrament was his first film to abandon playful genre deconstruction for an outright stab at grisly realism by way of faux-documentary, but it felt heavy-handed in a way his previous work had not.
With In a Valley of Violence, West returns to pastiche; this time under the guise of a Spaghetti Western, and the results are unmistakably idiosyncratic. Using traditional archetypes--the lonely drifter, the hot shot gunslinger, the incredulous sheriff, the plucky love interest, etc--West doesn't so much subvert the genre here as gently honor it while making it his own. He's clearly not compelled by plot (the pacing is relaxed and measured), and the handful of violent scenes are staged economically rather than in bombastic fashion. In fact, West seems most intrigued by what happens after archetype is stripped away, reveling in the emotional and psychological effects wrought by the actions of the characters.
Ethan Hawke stars as Paul, the drifter stumbling into the nearly deserted town with cute dog in tow. He's greeted by the grizzled U.S. Marshall (John Travolta), unhinged gunslinger Gilly (James Ransone), naive but tenacious hotel maid Marry Anne (Taissa Farmiga) and her flighty older sister, Ellen (Karen Gillan). Gilly has a rag-tag group of cronies, but otherwise, the town seems uninhabited, save for the ornery bartender and an elderly shopkeeper. Paul gets into an altercation with Gilly, embarrasses him in front of the town, and impresses plucky Mary Anne, who hopes to leave her monotonous life behind. Naturally, Paul is simply "passing through", but his decision to strike back after Gilly causes bodily harm to his dog, sets in motion a cycle of violence which inevitably leads to a blood-soaked climax.
In A Valley of Violence often plays like a sly response to the kind of Quentin Tarantino-inspired pastiche of genre that we've come to expect. Though there's plenty of quirky humor and anachronistic performances on display here, West is never completely winking at the material, and the violence, such as it is, is never made to look cool. Instead, the characters slowly emerge as bumbling, ordinary people thrust into a harsh and unforgiving landscape. West skillfully juggles tonality here-- Hawke's reserved seriousness is placed alongside the slapstick banter of Mary Anne and Ellen, the horrific sense of dread during a campground sequence involving the murder of Paul's dog is juxtaposed with Travolta's humorous performance as a bad guy who also doesn't want to incur violence--resulting in a film which has the veneer of homage, but is in fact much more heartfelt.
Shot in lovely 35-mm by Eric Robbins and featuring an Ennio Morricone-inspired score by Jeff Grace, In a Valley of Violence only stumbles in its final third, where Paul goes on his predictable killing spree for vengeance. Though it's novel to have our hero going up against only a few enemies and himself tripping through the motions without a clear plan, the ending is also somewhat anti-climatic; relying too much on Ransone's over-ripe theatrics and Farmiga's plucky heroics instead of fully investing in Paul's emotional torment. Nevertheless, West shows genuine maturity and growth here, branching out of his comfort zone and into the realm of genre-shifting that speaks to his obvious affection for the Western. More than anything, In a Valley of Violence once again demonstrates that you just should't fuck with a man's dog.