Certain genres in film naturally have peaks and troughs. What dominates studio pitch-meetings and multiplexes one minute is yesterday’s news the next. Horror, for instance, was arguably at its pinnacle throughout the seventies and early eighties. It peaked and indeed, troughed on several occasions before going through something of a renaissance in the mid-to-late noughties, ushered in by a young generation of filmmakers seemingly enamoured with its post-Vietnam heyday.
One such filmmaker was now cult-favourite Ti West, flying the flag for this movement with a solid run of knowing, varied and cineliterate chillers including the excellent The House Of The Devil and the underrated The Sacrament. Fitting then that he should now turn his hand to another much loved and currently re-awakening genre: the western. Moribund only twenty years ago and made vital again thanks to gems such as Slow West and Bone Tomahawk (tellingly both feature debuts for their respective Directors), now is a golden age for cinema-goers still pining for six-shooters, wagons, the vistas and earnestness of Ford or the pulpy, schlock operas of Leone.
West’s stab owes more to the latter than the former. A lean, brutal revenge thriller at its core, In A Valley Of Violence sees Ethan Hawke’s mysterious ex-soldier Paul make the mistake of wandering through the moody, enigmatic town of Denton on his way to Mexico. Dubbed the titular valley, Denton is filled with oddballs and misfits and Paul is soon ruffling the feathers of the local Marshal (John Travolta) and his petulant, uncontrollable son Gilly (James Ransone). To elaborate further, or indeed mention one of its most obvious, recent cinematic bedfellows would be revealing too much about a film which relies on these developments to surprise and evoke. Suffice to say, this is West’s most ambitious, mature and arguably satisfying work to date.
A tense pre-credit scene sets the tone as Paul comes upon a drunken Priest (played by go-to character actor Burn Gorman) who warns him about the town before things slowly and typically become unfriendly. It’s a beautifully written, strangely unsettling scene; taut, brilliantly acted and constantly pulsing with an exemplary soundtrack courtesy of West’s longtime collaborator Jeff Grace. By the time the follow-up credit sequence is over you’ll be in no doubt of the film’s roots. At the risk of employing an overused comparison for whenever a genre-savvy director nods to the favourites of his past, cinephilia and pastiche combine for West to almost out-Tarantino Tarantino in these opening five minutes. It’s impossible not to think of QT as bold, retro title cards (complete with copyright info), striking old-school music and animation combine.
Performances are solid across the board. It’s a joy to see Travolta chewing the scenery again in a big screen performance – a privilege too seldomly afforded these days. A complex antagonist, his Marshal wants peace in the small town yet finds his amicability clashing with his Fatherly devotion to Gilly, despite the latter’s lack of sense and reason. Gilly himself is an interesting, if loathsome character. Ranson’s petulant portrayal of an irritant, acting out in the shadow of his more respected authority-figure Father will put you in mind of his excellent turn in The Wire’s seminal second season. Think Ziggy with a murderous streak. Taissa Farmiga, recently great in the underseen horror comedy The Final Girls, shows further proof older Sister Vera isn’t the only talent in the family. Both adorable and level-headed as Paul’s initially doe-eyed admirer and ultimate sidekick Mary-Anne, it’s a performance so charming that you’ll understand why Paul finds himself connecting with her after willfully living as a loner for so long.
The film belongs to Hawke however. A rare breed; Hawke’s an Oscar nominee all too happy to support up and coming filmmakers and small genre pictures. With a good eye for an interesting project, he often straddles the gravitas of his Linklater collaborations with regular forays into sci-fi or horror. He’s chosen wisely yet again here, molding a nuanced hero out of the tried and tested Western staple of lone, monosyllabic stranger. His relatively straight turn anchors the craziness around him for the first half, his face hiding a history repressed. Equally impressive is the carnage he unleashes in the film’s second half when the title lives more than up to its name.
The film has more cards to play than just Leone homage and brutality however. Paul’s devotion to his trusty canine Abbie provides several light moments. Performing commands and tricks that will melt the hardest of hearts, Abbie provides the peculiar heart of the film. It’s surprisingly very funny too, peppered with acerbic exchanges and an overall droll tone. Likewise Karen Gillan is great comic value as Ellen – theatrical fiance of Gilly, with a mouth as loud.
A mixed bag of flavours, In A Valley Of Violence is at once nerve-wracking, amusing, heartbreaking and, when it all kicks off, thrillingly vicious. It would seem neither Ti West nor the long-thought obsolete genre he’s playing in here are going anywhere soon. As long as both are delivering on this level, they won’t be outstaying their welcome for while.