Movie Review: ‘In a Valley of Violence’
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Taissa Farmiga, and John Travolta
Plot: A traveler on his way to Mexico crosses paths with the violent residents of a dying mine town.
Horror and westerns make for strange relatives. John Carpenter, for instance, got into film-making to make westerns but ended up being one of the most influential voices in horror instead. I’m not entirely sure the correlation. Maybe it is the long-silences leading up to bursts of violence and a shared affection for blood and guts. Either way, seeing horror-aficionado and mumblecore-adjacent filmmaker, Ti West, make this particular leap isn’t really surprising.
Ethan Hawke stars as Paul, a wanderer, with a dog and horse, looking for the Mexican border running from a mysterious past. Low on supplies, Paul decides to cross a valley, and the town sitting in the middle of it, instead of going around it. Unfortunately for him, the town of Denton has seen better days. The local mine closed and a lot of the people and money left the region. All that’s left are a few forgotten townsfolk, some of which let their violent tendencies get the best of them. One such towns-member is Deputy Gilly, an insecure twerp (played by James Ransome), who has long forgotten what a true challenge was. After acting tough and getting his ass handed to him by Paul, Gilly believes he must defend his honor and take Paul out.
Leaving him for dead, but not dead enough, gives Paul the opportunity to dish out some karmic justice in true Old West fashion. For A Valley of Violence, West nails all of these post-white-hat western genre motifs, all very workmanlike in its execution. The big sandy expanses and dusty old town are photographed competently. The town is full of scared quiet townspeople defined by their jobs plus the bubbly romantic interest looking for her way out. When it happens, the gun-play is big and memorable, but, in regards to screen time, it plays second fiddle to conversations of honor and justice.
These conversations happen mainly between Ethan Hawke’s protagonist and the marshal in Denton, as played by John Travolta. The marshal happens to be a war-torn former soldier who left his leg on a battlefield. He finds a kindred spirit in Paul, but Gilly is his son and the towns people are under his protection. He can’t let this kind of trouble-making continue, but, sadly for the both of them, the lines in the sand have been drawn for them. Hawke struggles to bring this moral questioning to life. Lately, he has been building a reputation for committing to and elevating otherwise plain genre flicks. His attempt at an understated performance misses the mark and ends up looking more like sleep-walking (although I don’t believe that is what it is actually happening). This is a recurring problem in this flick. The characters all feel incredibly stock, like animatronics on some western amusement park ride, especially Karen Gillen’s western belle and Ransome’s dirty deputy. There was a certain over the top cadence that made the heavily stylized writing fall flat. Only Travolta escapes giving one of his better performances in years. Without being overly dramatic, it is a very lived-in kind of character where the weight of a well-traveled life burdens every word.
This is surprising for a Ti West movie. West’s mumblecore leanings allowed him to create two of the better horror films of the 21st century, House of the Devil and The Innkeepers, both of which were performance- and dialog-driven stories. His use of conversation and interpersonal drama was used to better create dread than any score or masked villain was able to in the ’90s. He was able to strip that genre of its superficial elements and leave us with the bare essential empathy of sincerely fearful characters. However, none of this was translated to In a Valley of Violence, and it ends up being another superficial attempt at a tired genre.