IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE Review
Director: Ti West
When I think Blumhouse Productions, the genre that immediately leaps to mind is, of course, the Western. You see, the joke is that the company has built its reputation around producing cheap horror films by the truckload, only rarely venturing outside the spook zone. But maybe Jason Blum should chart such a course more often. After all, WHIPLASH came completely out of left field in 2014, surprising everybody and almost walking off with an Oscar for it. While it could have been written off as a fluke, the truth is that lightning can hit the same spot twice, as seen in Blumhouse’s latest anomaly, IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE. Written and directed by Ti West, who is as alien to the world outside of horror as Blum, VALLEY nonetheless strikes a brilliant balance between unapologetic brutality and unrelenting fun.
Picking up on the American frontier at the height of the Indian Wars, we find Paul (Ethan Hawke), a US Army deserter, and his four-legged friend Abbie (Jumpy the Dog) heading for Mexico. After an asinine tiff in the backwater town of Denton, Paul gets dragged into a fight with the local tough, Gilly (James Ransone). Despite the best efforts of Gilly’s father, the sheriff (John Travolta), the two men find themselves in a cycle of vengeance that tears the whole town down.
Can we have just one Western where the characters are able to talk it out?
It sure sounds grim, but despite the bloody conflict, VALLEY maintains a snarky sense of humor throughout. The absurdity of the two cowpokes’ quarrel is never lost on West, who frames nearly every encounter around the soul-crushing boredom of frontier living. More so than most Westerns, the town of Denton is in the armpit of nowhere, an outpost so forlorn that even the preacher up and and left. Even in the midst of a gunfight, characters will get caught up in the most trivial of arguments, so little is the value of life in this patch of the territories. The vendetta shared between Hawke and Ransone might be horrific for both parties, but the attached risk of an inglorious death is almost justified when it’s far and away the most interesting thing to ever happen to them. In this sense, VALLEY is downright parodic at times, jeering at the hard-bitten killers that we see too often in the genre by showing just how futile their way of life is in the grand scheme of things.
Driving the script is VALLEY’s stellar cast, which is easily the strongest card in West’s hand. Given that Ethan Hawke also just starred in THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, one can only assume he’s gone full-time cowboy, rambling from Western set to Western set. I’m certainly not complaining, as Hawke’s raspy charisma and, at times, frightening intensity lend themselves brilliantly to the setting. While I could sing the praises of Hawke’s versatility, aura, and discerning taste in off-the-wall projects (here’s to you, DAYBREAKERS) ’til the cows come home, I’d be doing a terrible disservice to his costars. Travolta is at his peak performance as the wizened but at-wits-end sheriff, acting as the only force of reason in the middle of the maelstrom. It’s a shame that so many of Travolta’s most engaging roles in recent years, including this one and his part in FROM PARIS WITH LOVE, get overshadowed by his A-list successors, because this is another actor whose star dimmed far too early.
“Look, I’m not asking for much! Just put me in another Besson movie!”
While Hawke and Travolta are the obvious selling points, it’s the lesser-known supporting cast that seals the deal. Ransone, one more name known mostly for horror, is a dynamic, catalyzing force. As a villain, he’s equal parts cruel, cowardly, and stupid, the absolute worst (or best, I guess) set of qualities you could want from a villain. Taissa Farmiga and Karen Gillan add further fuel to the fire as a pair of quarreling sisters who drive Hawke and Ransone, respectively, even further over the edge. Farmiga in particular is imbued with a rare degree of earnestness as the naive younger sibling, and watching her shouting matches with her vapid sister is just as fun as the gunfights occurring next door. Lastly, lest it escape mention, Jumpy is hands down the most charming dog actor in ages. The cartoonishly capable canine amplifies the borderline surreal nature of the film, injecting a euphoric vitality into each of his scenes.
And the Academy Award for good boy goes to…
While it’s the cast that triumphs, the flaws with VALLEY fall squarely in the lap of West. While they are fortunately few and far between, they are certainly noticeable nonetheless. West makes some bizarre choices behind the camera, especially during a particular nighttime segment he chose to light with a flashlight, lending a found-footage feel to his…Western? While this disorienting example does take place during a dream sequence, the anachronism is jarring regardless. In addition, several lines of dialogue are noteworthy in their expository nature, and it’s not uncommon for a character to abruptly shout out their declaration of purpose to make sure everyone is following along.
These gaffes aside, VALLEY’s script is a near perfect example of not only the action-Western, but the revenge film as well. It’s poignant and biting when it needs to be, and entertaining throughout. Though indeed violent, the film never devolves into try-hard levels of morbidity, instead using the bloodshed as a vehicle for its themes. The stakes are appropriate to the scale of the conflict, and the inciting provocation has the exact right amount of despicability to keep the viewer strapped in until the finale. While many Western characters are defined more by their ten gallon hats than the guys and gals beneath them, VALLEY is a refreshingly human take on the genre.
Discovering IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE felt very much like digging up a buried treasure. It’s a crime that the film received as little publicity as it did, and it’s even worse that I couldn’t find a single theater playing it. Though it appears doomed to VOD, I can’t offer a more sincere endorsement. This is already “the best movie of 2016 that you’ll never see,” but that doesn’t mean that it has to pass you by.