The following review was originally published as part of our coverage of South By Southwest Film 2016.
The most surprising thing about Ti West’s In a Valley of Violence is how funny it is. That’s not something you’d necessarily expect from a revenge Western, especially one written and directed by a man whose last movie was a sober depiction of the Jonestown massacre. But time and again, In a Valley of Violence punctuates its cruelty and pathos with stabs of broad comedy that are so rooted in both character and circumstance that they somehow never diminish the ever-mounting tension. And In a Valley of Violence is certainly tense; not since The House of the Devil has West so effectively delivered on the suspense he’s so adept at crafting.
Right off the bat, we’re treated to a taut scene between a shady priest (Burn Gorman) and Paul (Ethan Hawke), a mysterious drifter who, alongside his loyal dog, is traversing the Southwestern desert on his way to Mexico. We quickly learn that, though capable and quite adept at violence, Paul is attempting to abstain from combat as a means of atonement. For what? We’re not sure, but when a group of thugs led by small-town deputy Gilly (James Ransone) crosses Paul, all bets are off. Pent-up rage spills across the thoroughfare of a near-abandoned mining town, as does the blood, during a third act that’s pretty much exactly what you’d expect.
Surprises, truthfully, are in short supply. This is a spaghetti western through and through, as bloody as it is crass and absurd. West brings an added jolt with his horror pedigree, his camera conjuring dread through tight frames and slow zooms that can’t help but portend tragedy. There’s even a few jump scares that, due to their infrequency, work to build tension rather than frustration. But expecting any kind of supernatural twist is an exercise in futility; West’s bag of tricks runs deep, and it’s wonderful to watch him both expand his scope and tighten his grasp on genre filmmaking.
West’s rise has also granted him access to A-list talent. John Travolta, as a small-town marshal with a wooden leg, is the most fun he’s been in years. His silky rasp lends itself to a Southwestern drawl, and his signature shriek and penchant for over-articulation gives West’s comedy a maniacal fervor. Blumhouse regular Ransone is also excellent, again demonstrating just how deliciously infuriating he can be as the entitled fuck-up with a mean streak. And, as one of Gilly’s crew, journeyman character actor Toby Huss transcends his sidekick status with a performance as soulful as it is crusty.
The women, unfortunately, don’t fare as well. As “high society” sisters who run the local hotel, neither Taissa Farmiga nor Karen Gillan can find their footing in the film’s genre trappings, both feeling like millennials playing dress-up. Farmiga has a folksy charm that fares better than Gillan’s shrillness, but the characters’ struggles never feel like more than lines in a script.
But where In a Valley of Violence struggles most is with its protagonist. Hawke’s commitment and passion is certainly on display, but, as a character, Paul is both overwritten and undercooked. It’s rare that a fleshed-out backstory would benefit a grizzled gunslinger, but in this case, it would go far in portending and justifying Paul’s mean streak. West does offer us a few morsels, as well as a striking, cleverly spotlit flashback, but the real weight, the pathos of Paul’s pain and bloodlust, is never truly felt beyond the visceral. Because of that, the film’s underlying themes of violence and its transformative power don’t quite crystallize.
Still, In a Valley of Violence is great fun. It’s loud and sloppy and consistently thrilling, an unapologetic Western with ugly villains and an immersive setting. It’s also a testament to West’s distinctiveness as a filmmaker. His ability to mesh genres, to subvert tropes by approaching them from a different angle, gives his films an unmistakable flavor. In a Valley of Violence isn’t what his fans and critics are probably expecting – this isn’t a horror-western a la Bone Tomahawk, instead simply a Western – but it’s a clever pivot that spins his work in a new direction that won’t alienate his core base. Come for the blood, stay for the belly laughs.