One of the most heartbreaking scenes of any film this year was one of the most heartbreaking scenes of any film two years ago—then it was in slickly excellent Keanu Reeves mass-slaughter vehicle John Wick, and today it’s in Ti West’s otherwise pretty fun-filled neo-Western, In a Valley of Violence.
To even mention the former means sauntering smugly into spoiler territory with the latter, but West, who’s proven he’s one of our deftest genre handlers still figuring out what he wants to do when he grows up, knows you can’t really spoil such an archetypal plot anyway. Instead, with his latest film, by giving up scares for shoot-outs, the typically horror-centric writer-director isn’t interested in re-configuring classic tropes as much as he is in rubbing those tropes against reality to see what sparks. And while In a Valley of Violence doesn’t burn the traditional Western formula to dust, it does give a cadre of impeccable character actors a wide-open sandbox to squat over and dump into.
More, maybe, than any other recent revisionist Westerns, like Bone Tomahawk or The Hateful Eight, In a Valley of Violence is built around interrogating the genre’s tried and true archetypes—its cinematic language even—rather than upholding, modernizing, or (in the case of Tarantino’s take) obliterating them out of existence. Ethan Hawke finds the perfect workmanlike take on the Man With One Name, Paul, a gunslinging drifter and former Union soldier, by playing him as blankly as he can, owing his opaque demeanor to the Eastwoods and Bronsons of Sergio Leone’s classics. Paul has obviously buried something deep beneath those bleary eyes, but it’s only his best friend and companion, Abby (played by Border Collie mix and amazing canine acrobat, Jumpy), who’s allowed access into Paul’s closely guarded inner life. Paul and Abby traverse the Texan frontier, headed for Mexico, because it’s clear that Paul would rather be anywhere but here (of just because the movie needs him to do something).
Running out of water, Paul comes upon the lip of a mostly bare valley, at the bottom of which sits the tiny town of Denton. Paul’s heard the place is best avoided altogether, but he can’t afford going the long way around, so he descends into the valley, necessarily spawning the film’s Lovecraftian name. There, Paul befriends teenage innkeeper Mary-Anne (Taissa Farmiga, playing to the rafters), who’s looking for any help she can get in having reason enough to ditch her lot. Not long after, so it goes, Paul suffers a fateful misunderstanding with town Deputy Gilly (an apoplectic James Ransone, which is the best kind of James Ransone), a scuffle which inevitably spirals out into the ultra-violent, but not before Gilly commits the aforementioned heartbreaking act that leaves Paul with no choice but to do what he’s gotta—and what he was probably destined to do regardless.
West, shooting in 35 mm like he’s replicating an elaborate spaghetti Western, exacts the geography of one-horse Denton with help from cinematographer Eric Robbins. Robbins leans hard on that geography: The butt ends of the town’s only thoroughfare are blanched by stretches of nothingness, of bleached-yellow sand and blue sky, an effect that’s both plainly quite beautiful, and conceptually effective, affording the film’s action the sense that nothing else could possibly exist outside of this small world. That Paul is trying to get away, or that Mary-Anne is trying to get out, seems foolish in the way West implies that nothing actually awaits them. Like a Sam Peckinpah joint—the director being West’s second-most blatant influence after Leone—In a Valley of Violence charts time in falling bodies and bullets, insisting that the entelechial nature of the universe is naught but bloodshed and struggle. After all, the film begins with only the sound of Abby’s panting, both some mean foreshadowing and a greater symbolic gesture: All is effort, exertion, expulsion—and then you die.
But the film is far funnier than any of its pedigree would suggest, aided in part by the arrival of John Travolta as the surprisingly rational U.S. Marshal, who also happens to be Gilly’s father. Like Kurt Russell in Bone Tomahawk, Travolta’s is a reassuring presence, as effortless as it is wearied, the anchor which the film’s increasingly stylized violence can never totally lift. This is by design: West treats In a Valley of Violence like an anachronism at times, his dialogue never fetishized and his archetypes never veiled, brutalizing the 1960s Westerns he so digs, which themselves were brutalized versions of the Westerns to come before. Which is strange, because though it seems as if West thinks he’s recontextualizing Western tropes, and thereby messing with some sacred cinematic texts, he still gets the same results. In a Valley of Violence has nothing much new to say about revenge stories or genre thrillers or Ethan Hawke’s capabilities in competently leading a movie while simultaneously being the least interesting actor in it.
Still, West is an impeccable craftsman, his storytelling chops as fatless and near-faultless as ever. As much could be expected from any genre director these days, really, and West is, undoubtedly, up to the task of trying his hand at any of the kinds of films he loves. Each genre he amends to his oeuvre is bound to better inform what’s to come (West’s background in found-footage horror especially makes its way into a mid-film, hallucinatory flashback), but to what end? West is a compelling enough filmmaker—not to mention one who’s paid his dues—to not have to completely justify making the movies he wants to make, but the further he drills into the arcana of cinematic fandom, the further he gets from having any point besides that. Which is less about a trenchant kind of nihilism, and more just him not caring. Even Sam Peckinpah wasn’t that cynical.
Director: Ti West
Writer: Ti West
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Jumpy, John Travolta, James Ransone, Taissa Farmiga, Karen Gillan
Release Date: October 21, 2016
Dom Sinacola is Assistant Movies Editor at Paste and a Portland-based writer. Since he grew up in the Detroit area, it is required by law that his favorite movie is Robocop. You can follow him on Twitter.