IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE (2016)
Starring Ethan Hawke, John Travolta, Taissa Farmiga, James Ransone, Karen Gillan, Toby Huss, Tommy Nohilly, Larry Fessenden, Michael Davis, James Cady, Burn Gorman, K. Harrison Sweeney, James E. Lane, Jeff Bairstow and Jumpy.
Screenplay by Ti West.
Directed by Ti West.
Distributed by Focus World. 104 minutes. Rated R.
The western is pretty much dead as a genre. Has been for generations now. They keep trying to bring it back, and every once in a while they’ll actually hit on an interesting update like The Revenant, Django Unchained or the remake of True Grit. However, even those are intellectual updatings of the genre, adding new millennium quirks to a very old-fashioned genre. And for each of those that make even a ripple in the tranquil mountain lake of the movie business, there are about ten a year that either sink without a trace or fail with a massive plop.
It’s hard to believe that Ti West, the innovative horror director behind House of the Devil and The Innkeepers would be the one who would recapture the look and feel of a good old-fashioned western – or at the very least a Sergio Leone spaghetti western. West also adds his own little post-modern touches, the violence is ramped up and the film is surprisingly full of humorous quips, but he has made the best pure western in years.
Color me impressed.
Ethan Hawke plays Paul, an army deserter and loner who is trying to reach the Mexican border with his faithful, beloved dog Abbie. (Jumpy the dog, who plays Abbie, is easily the best and most expressive canine actor to be seen in movies in many years.) We never really learn why Paul is AWOL, though flashbacks lead you to believe that he was part of a massacre in an Indian village which preys on his mind. We also do not know why he does not return home to his wife and daughter, but he has decided that he can’t go back.
Almost up to the border, he comes across a small, almost forgotten town called Denton. Though he has been warned that it is a very violent town, run by a renegade Marshal, he is in need of food and supplies. Besides, it would take days for him to skirt around the town, which lays directly in the trail towards the border. So he decides to go to town, keep his head low, and get out as quickly as he can.
Of course, best laid plans never work, and he finds himself being harassed by a local tough named Gilly. Paul tries his best to ignore the guy, but Gilly keeps pushing and prodding until the guy challenges him to a fight outside. Paul continues ignoring him until the guy threatens his dog, and then he comes out and beats Gilly in front of his town folks, breaking his nose and humiliating him.
The fight is seen by everyone in the town, particularly the two young sisters Mary-Anne (Taissa Farmiga) and Ellen (Karen Gillan) who run the local inn. Mary-Anne is particularly fascinated by the stranger, seeing him as someone who may help her escape this hellish town.
The problem is, it quickly turns out, that Gilly is the son of the Marshal (Travolta). Now the Marshal knows his boy is a hot-headed bully, so he tries to broker a peaceful retreat by Paul, so that everyone will save face. He is actually being surprisingly reasonable, so Paul quickly agrees and it seems that an explosion has been averted.
However, Gilly and his friends track Paul into the mountains and ambush him as he tries to rest for the night. I won’t say exactly what Gilly does, but I will say it is the most hurtful thing he could possibly do to Paul. Then they push him down a cliff and assume that the fall has killed him. He survives, and returns to town bent on revenge, leading to a massive series of shootouts in the dusty streets.
It sounds like a pretty standard storyline, and it is. However, the loving detail, strong script and terrific acting makes it pop. Hawke is heartbreaking as the wronged loner, Farmiga is sweetly naive, and this may be Travolta’s best film performance in years. In fact, between this and The People v. OJ Simpson, Travolta may be due another career resurrection like he received after Pulp Fiction.
The visuals are crisp and smart, and In a Valley of Violence turns out to be a whip-smart homage to the traditional western. Writer/director West left his horror comfort zone and has made perhaps his best film yet. I look forward to seeing what he can do with some other genres.
Jay S. Jacobs
Copyright ©2016 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: October 21, 2016.