In a Valley of Violence March 22, 2017
In our trying times, having an old-fashioned Western like Ti West’s In a Valley of Violence is a nice break from your typical maximalist blockbuster. A hybrid of the collaborations between John Ford and John Wayne, playful Randolph Scott vehicles, Sergio Leone’s spaghetti Westerns, and Sam Peckinpah’s most brutal epics, the film is a sweaty, merciless yet knowingly humorous modern touchstone, a revenge thriller that bites.
It stars Ethan Hawke as Paul, a drifter traveling through America’s Great Plains down to Mexico with his dog, Abbie. The journey tiresome, with the sun ruthless and resources scarce, he stops in the barren Denton for supplies and a well-deserved break. But upon arrival, he’s hardly greeted by relaxation. After picking a fight with the tyrannical local deputy, Gilly Martin (James Ransone), he leaves bloody knuckled and fired up.
That night, though, it’s made clear that Paul’s lashing out won’t be without its repercussions. Just hours after settling down for the night in a desert clearing, Martin and his cronies attack Paul. And, in a callous twist that certainly will be a turnoff for the faint of heart, kill Abbie. Understandably, Paul is pissed off by the abuse of power on the part of Martin and swears retribution.
And that retribution comes sweetly and satisfactorily, since In a Valley of Violence is the kind of movie that decides early on that revenge is a dish best served cold and that our protagonist is going to prevail no matter the circumstances. We’ve seen this movie dozens of times before, but it’s made anew through the film’s likable drollness and through the way the performances of Hawke and co-stars Taissa Farmiga and Karen Gillan either satirically exaggerate types we’ve come to know over the years or subvert them entirely. Farmiga particularly stands out as a teenage girl who finds herself suddenly overcome with the need to challenge the patriarchy of the town once Paul comes into her life.
But the most interesting thing about the movie is its writer/director/editor, Ti West. An indie wunderkind best known for his contributions to the horror genre, like 2009’s great House of the Devil and 2011’s slow-burning The Innkeepers, In a Valley of Violence marks the first time he’s ever traveled out of a cinematic zone not peppered by the influences of Wes Craven or John Carpenter.
Resulting is one of his most effective films – where his past efforts have sometimes suffered as an effect of his tendency to keep things building until they reach a pulse-pounding breaking point, In a Valley of Violence instead boasts conventional genre tropes made anew. West’s willingness to move away from his standard element is a brave move, and the feature proves that a genuinely gifted artist is able to reach new heights when they push themselves. It feels like a new beginning, and I’m eager to see the direction West’s career will move in next. B