Apparently 2016 is a breakout year for Ethan Hawke westerns. Okay, so I’m being a tad facetious, but the 45 year-old Austin, Texas native has released two westerns over the last few months. The first was the crowd-pleasing shoot-em-up remake of “The Magnificent Seven”. And then there is this film, the much leaner and less serious “In a Valley of Violence”.
The film is written, edited and directed by Ti West, a filmmaker most known for his small, fresh takes on the horror genre. West has much the same goal in mind here, but at the same time this is a clear-coated homage plump full of familiar western tropes. West’s tongue-in-cheek handling of the material enables his celebration of the traditional western to also feel surprisingly fresh.
“In a Valley of Violence” proclaims the age-old prophecy (or at least it should be an age-old prophecy if it isn’t) – don’t come between a man and his dog. That’s exactly what happens when a drifter named Paul (Hawke) and his dog Abbie come across the small, rundown town of Denton on their way to the Mexican border. Denton is clearly a dangerous place as evident by its scarcity of citizens and its boarded-up church. But Paul needs supplies so he moseys into town.
And can you ever stop in a small western town without hitting the local saloon? Paul does that very thing and has run-in with a drunken hothead named Gilly (James Ransone). Words are exchanged, a punch is thrown, Gilly’s nose is broken, and the town’s Marshal Clyde Martin (John Travolta) sends Paul on his way with a warning never to return. Sounds fair enough, but it wouldn’t be much of a story if ended on that note. Things sour and we see the violent side of Paul that has been simmering under the surface.
The story doesn’t stray too far from the traditional western revenge tale, but Hawke and Travolta both energize it with some really good performances. There is also some really good supporting work from Taissa Farmiga (younger sister of actress Vera Farmiga). She plays a young woman who helps run the town’s hotel and sees Denton for the unruly dead-end that it is.
It’s an enjoyable small cast who seem to have fun with West’s material particularly the humor. Despite its ominous threatening title, “In a Valley of Violence” is surprisingly funny. Some of its laughs come at the most unexpected times and range from subtle to absurdity. It never goes far enough to turn this into a spoof, but it does keep things light even when the tension amps up.
Despite its violence and dedication to formula, West and company (wisely) never take their movie too seriously. Even when it’s moving by the numbers, it remains quirky enough to feel slightly off-center (which is a good thing). Appropriately shot in 35mm and featuring a sparkling Jeff Grace score, the film looks and sounds as it should which will endear it to genre fans. But most impressive is its ability to embrace the conventional and set our expectations only to then shake things up just enough for us to see things through a new lens. That makes this film too appealing to pass up.
VERDICT – 4 STARS