Despite my voracious thirst for horror, and Ti West’s reputation for such films, surprisingly, In A Valley Of Violence might just be my favorite effort from the director to date. Actually, no – I do, in fact, KNOW that In A Valley Of Violence is West’s highest achievement yet, as he channels an old-school western vibe that’s equal parts ruthless violence and gun-slinging comedy (gallows humor at its best). This buddy-cowboy hootenanny shies away from the darkness and embraces a highly entertaining light, even after acknowledging the sobering sadness instilled through one, cruel scene. Think John Wick meets Old West – a double-barreled blast of excitement told with conviction.
Ethan Hawke stars as Paul, a tortured ex-militant who’s running away from his ghastly past. His only friend in the world is a lovable pooch named Abby, and his only goal is to reach Mexico’s border. But when Paul rumbles with locals during a mandatory pit-stop, he finds himself run out by the town’s brutish marshal (John Travolta). Thinking the worst is behind him, Paul sets up camp for the night outside of civilization, but the marshal’s son, Gilly (James Ransone), has his own agenda. While Paul is sleeping, Gilly sneaks up and makes an example out of Abby, in response to their earlier exchange. Well, Paul doesn’t take too kindly to his best friend’s death, and swears not to rest until Gilly and his crew are laid to rest.
There’s a short adjustment period when In A Valley Of Violence begins, where you’re not quite sure what kind of movie you’re in for. I’ll admit, West’s dusty stage-play atmosphere feels a bit over-dramatic at first, but then the cartoonish landscape sucks you in, transporting you through revived settings, drawl-heavy performances, and Graham Reznick’s whistling, tumbleweed-kickin’ score.
A killer title sequence featuring blood-red graphics prepare for the cold-hearted thriller that follows, but it’s not exactly as cold-hearted as you’d expect – and that’s a good thing. Westerns have since gone the way of gritty, dark reboots (for a majority, at least), but West keeps things cheeky and humanly flawed, in an enchanting, knee-slapping kind of way.
Of course, Abby the dog steals most the laughs, smiles, and surprisingly light material. West’s cast features many well established actors, but a canine performer named Jumpy trounces them all. His chemistry with Hawke is protectively dynamite, and his animalistic gestures are entirely too adorable (covering his eyes, rolling up in a doggy blanket burrito). Sadly, Paul’s anger stems from Abby’s ruthless demise, but she shines enthusiastically until then, stealing every scene from her human co-stars.
As far as people are concerned, In A Valley Of Violence boasts a smaller, quality-driven ensemble, all tightly cast and fittingly plucked. From Ethan Hawke’s silent, rough-and-tumble sauntering, to John Travolta’s smug, blunt marshal, or from Karen Gillian’s bitchy damsel to Taissa Farmigia’s chatty, every-curious bathtub hostess, West’s cast brings such a wild, lawless period to life. James Ransone, the resident fight-loving, mustachioed frontiersman, once again proves that Hollywoods needs a lot freakin’ more Ransone sightings, and enjoys the hell out of portraying Paul’s dastardly archenemy. Every character has a plateauing peak, and no gunslinger goes without seizing their moment of redemption, justice, or fitting demise.
Poetically, West’s tale of revenge is of a primal simplicity, driven by loss in the name of justice. It’s short, not-so-sweet, and punctuated by brutal retribution at the hand of a lawless man. Paul’s attackers lack humility, and call upon a broken wanderer’s wrath by pushing too far, and without remorse. All the small-town bloodshed is highly avoidable, but ego calls back a monster who’s already long gone, which is more a cautionary warning about taking your licks with dignity. Then again, Gilly’s hubris allows for Paul to roll through town like a steady hand of the reaper, so, we benefit from the folly of man, a few cracked-open skulls and no-bullshit dialogue that once built the West’s straight-shooting charms.
West’s first pure departure from horror is a refreshingly bold take on classic Western shenanigans, with a jovial stress on consequential thinking. All the performances are wonderfully period-esque, as these dirty, sinful cowpoke embody the cutthroat vibe of our nation’s first settlers. Hawke, Gillian, Travolta, Ransone, and Farmigia (after she settles in) all balance comedy and vigilance, almost like an American-tinted Greek tragedy, but this callback is far too much Western fun to ignore.
In A Valley Of Violence is built on intense shootouts, vicious criminals, crooked lawmen and everything that makes Westerns exciting, but its entertainment value comes from a tonal brew of all the right tonally-combative spices. This is modern Western storytelling without a looming cloud of depression – because violence can be fun! In other words, West channels his inner Quentin Tarantino, and it’s a pretty damn spot on impression.
In A Valley Of Violence is a thrilling tale of Western revenge with rawhide grit, finding constant, and surprising enjoyment in gallows humor.