Movie Review: “In a Valley of Violence”

Starring
Ethan Hawke, John Travolta, James Ransone, Taissa Farmiga, Karen Gillan
Director
Ti West

Filmmaker Ti West has made his most conventionally enjoyable movie to date. Best known for horror films like “The House of the Devil,” “The Innkeepers” and “The Sacrament,” West tackles a new genre with “In a Valley of Violence,” a western starring Ethan Hawke and John Travolta. While West’s previous films get you squirming, his latest effort may have you cheering thanks to its sparse, enigmatic storytelling.

Paul (Hawke) isn’t exactly a loner. Although he’s tortured and on a path to nowhere, he has Abby at his side. Abby is his dog, and she sometimes looks after him just as much as he looks after her. When Paul enters the rundown town of Denton, nicknamed the “valley of violence,” he crosses paths with the hotheaded Gilly (James Ransone), the son of local sheriff, The Marshal (Travolta). Gilly thinks he’s the most dangerous man in town and challenges any man who questions his power. But when Paul leaves him bloodied, bruised and embarrassed after a beating that in no way constitues as a fight, Gilly and his men go after Paul’s dog for revenge, unaware that they’re dealing with one seriously flawed, dangerous military man who’s trained to kill. As Paul puts it, Gilly and his men left him with nothing, and he’s going to leave them with even less.

West’s script is packed with similar, crowd-pleasing threats and one-liners. Paul is a man of few words, but when he has something to say, you remember it, which is why Ethan Hawke is perfect casting. He’s an actor with a look that’s not bound to any particular time period. Throw him in a western and he doesn’t look like he’s playing a cowboy. Though a lot is asked of Hawke in the role, he shows what a remarkable actor he is. There are scenes of him talking to Abby, often in long takes, that are never dull. When Paul rambles about the past or jokes with his dog, Hawke makes you listen to his every word.

Paul’s motivation is simplicity at its finest. “In a Valley of Violence” is remarkably simple, but in no way is it slight. There’s nothing minor about entertainment value this high. This isn’t a movie that needs any more plot; the spectacle and characters provide enough substance. All of the film’s characters are more nuanced than they first appear. Although they’re all introduced as archetypes, West slowly peels back their layers and reveals that there’s nothing stock about Paul, Gilly or the Marshal. This is a movie where the two adversaries, Paul and the Marshal, are almost always on the same page. They both completely sympathize with one another. They’re both going to do what they have to, though, and seeing Hawke and Travolta play with that idea, often in humorous ways, leads to a lot of laughs.

West’s film is incredibly funny. Karen Gillan and Taissa Farmiga provide some laughs as well, but Travolta scores the biggest laugh in a scene with one of Gilly’s men. When the Marshal is at his most frustrated, he lets off steam in some funny, honest ways. From start to finish, “In a Valley of Violence” is just great entertainment with real stakes, big laughs, exceptional performances, thrilling shootouts, a great opening credits sequence and a score with the kind of quirky, bold and electric personality that suits Ti West’s style.

  

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