Marking his first stab at the Western after years in the horror trenches, director Ti West’s “In A Valley of Violence” uses every second to display its reverence for the genre. Like the Coens’ “True Grit” before it, the film is a classic revenge tale with a smirk — the type of Western where haggard men trade quips during gunfights, and Ethan Hawke is called upon to deliver his best vengeful gunslinger of few words. West and his cast, which also includes James Ransone, Taissa Farmiga, Karen Gillan and John Travolta, occasionally hit upon a bum note in its theatrical tone, but overall this Jason Blum-produced throwback makes for West’s most crowdpleasing effort yet.
The genre swing couldn’t come at a better time for West: since his debut “The Roost” and breakout hit “The House of the Devil,” the director has curated a slow-burn approach to horror that largely equaled two-thirds atmospheric buildup, one-third disappointing finale. But “In A Valley of Violence” changes course. Centered on Hawke as Paul, a drifter heading west with his collie companion (Jumpy, Most Talented Screen Canine candidate), the film completes its run with confidence, and signs off with a beautiful crane shot over Denton, a dried-up New Mexico mining town packed with sinners of every variety.
Denton proves the location where — following an animated title sequence indebted to “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly” (and showcasing composer Jeff Grace’s wonderful score) — Paul crosses paths with Gilly (Ransone), the loathsome local deputy drunk on power. Driven to fight, Paul lays Gilly out with one punch and flees the town. The crooked town marshal and Gilly’s father (Travolta, funny and matter-of-fact) suggests to his son that he end the conflict there, but that night Gilly and his gang (Larry Fessenden, Toby Huss, and Tommy Nohilly) locate Paul for a lethal payback.
Yet revenge begets revenge, and Paul emerges the following day, alive and with a new goal in mind — they left him with nothing, so he’s “going to leave them with less.” Exactly how Paul unleashes his inner “John Wick” is fairly predictable, as unlike West’s other work the plot works without mystery as its driving force. Instead, the film favors irreverent exchanges and a playful spirit to carry its momentum, with West utilizing a bag of crash-zooms, Wilhelm screams, and Spaghetti Western strings to furnish a rather goofy tone.
This works in the director’s favor at times, such as in the repeated encounters between Paul and an alcoholic priest (Burn Gorman) who can’t catch a break without losing his mule and whiskey bottle. But certain performances, like Karen Gillan as Ellen — Gilly’s motormouth fiancé and head of her father’s Denton hotel — spike the tone into arch hysterics. It isn’t until an overwritten scene of Ellen and Gilly fighting arrives that you realize how well the screenplay was working otherwise. Meanwhile, Hawke provides contrast by bringing a mousy determination to his conventional role as Paul. This is helped by visually rich flashes of his past as an army deserter that provide hints to his current isolation, even as Ellen’s 16-year-old sister Mary Anne (a charming Farmiga) fights for Paul’s affection.
When the time does come for Hawke to face off against Gilly and his cronies on the streets and roofs of Denton, West uses the whole of the third act to fully explore his setting, in true “Magnificent Seven” fashion. Laying out the town geography with DP Eric Robbins and then unleashing his characters within it, West orchestrates a string of clumsy encounters between fighters — people trip, hesitate before running into harm’s way, and accidentally shoot one another for being in the way.
The violence is messy, which also provides an opportunity for West to exercise his splatter background via punctuations of cut throats and head shots. True, that element may read as a director returning to his comfort zone, and yes, West’s take on the Western is light on classic characters or lasting deeper themes. But with an enjoyable atmosphere, solid performances from Hawke, Travolta, Farmiga, and one gifted canine, “In A Valley of Violence” ends up a solid entry in a genre gradually fading from mainstream cinema. [B]