A stranger walks into a dusty town. There aren’t many people lining the streets of this little oasis on the path to nowhere. In the town’s lone saloon, the stranger tries to enjoy a drink while facing the taunts of the local ruffians. A simple misunderstanding soon explodes into a blood feud. That’s the premise of countless westerns, including Ti West’s In a Valley of Violence. While it certainly doesn’t break any new ground in the genre its spur-laden boots are treading, it’s still a fun little throwback of showdowns on dirt roads between grizzled men out for vengeance.
After some excellent opening titles that recall the films of Sergio Leone, we’re introduced to Ethan Hawke who stars as Paul, a man who travels across the western frontier on his way to Mexico with his trusty dog Abby. He’s running from something in his past, but his quiet demeanor keeps him from verbalizing the pain under his stone-faced façade. He enters the town of Denton looking for supplies to continue his journey when he runs into the loud, brash, and violent Gilly (James Ransone). After a fist fight in the streets, Paul is given orders to leave the town from the local Marshal (John Travolta), who is the father of Gilly. But Paul public punching of Gilly has at least impressed one local, Mary Anne (Taissa Farmiga), who runs the town’s lone motel with her sister Ellen (Karen Gillan), who is engaged to Gilly. After leaving Denton, Paul is accosted at night by Gilly and his gang of goons, setting Paul on a path of bloody vengeance against the men who did him wrong and left him for dead.
In many regards In a Valley of Violence is like John Wick in the Wild West. Ethan Hawke is quiet and keeps to himself, but has a history that makes him extremely deadly to his foes. More so, Paul has a unique relationship with his dog Abby, and that dog is one of the most delightful things about the film. No matter what you think of the film as a whole, a star is born in the form of the lovable little mutt that performs a variety of tricks, including one moment at the beginning in taking down a drunken priest (played by Burn Gorman) that threatens Paul. Jumpy the dog is quite possibly the best animal actor to appear on the screen, easily eclipsing Auggie from The Artist.
Ti West has specialized in horror throughout his career, and In a Valley of Violence is a real departure from the scary scenes that he’s typically concocted. However, he still keeps In a Valley of Violence loaded with moments of suspense and gore, some of which gets quite gruesome. No matter how engaging or intriguing the action is in the film, there’s still this unmistakable feeling that there’s really nothing new at play, just slight variations on the well-worn tropes of the genre. And that’s not necessarily a terrible thing, but it does limit just how far the film can push its premise.
The character dynamics are also fairly well-worn, though the spirited performances always keep them fairly interesting even if they are incredibly familiar. James Ransone gives a gleefully over-the-top performance as the villainous Gilly, combining ruthlessness and cowardice in one ugly package. It’s incredibly nice to see John Travolta not phoning it in another piece of forgettable dreck. Travolta is really quite spirited as the town’s crooked Marshal, and really seems to be relishing the southern twang of his character. Aside from Jumpy, who is the film’s true star, Ethan Hawke and Taissa Farmiga ground the film with an awkward romantic plot, but the characters are more than aware of the awkwardness of the relationship, constantly commenting on the age difference and other factors. Counteracting that relationship is the manic energy Karen Gillan brings to her role as Gilly’s fiancé – alternating between judgmental and manic.
The film does feature some incredibly nice cinematography from Eric Robbins, though the digital photography does fill the frame with bits of digital noise in scenes of lower lighting. When the sun hangs over the dusty roads of Denton, the cinematography is vibrant and textured. It may not have the distinct mixture of sweat and dirt that you’d find in Leone feature, but it certainly captures the essence of those classic westerns, especially in the film’s lengthy final shot that gives us an overview of the town and the destruction that our characters have sowed upon one another.
If you’re looking for a western that breaks new ground, you’re not going to find it within In a Valley of Violence. But if you’re looking for an entertaining western throwback that deals in characters and bullet exchanges, Ti West’s film offers more than enough to entertain. It’s fun watching a horror director step out of his element and basically craft a simple revenge western that offers some great visceral thrills. No matter how you feel about the film and its subject matter, you’ll walk out of In a Valley of Violence in love with that dog. She’s certainly a pup worth killing over.
In a Valley of Violence
Ti West’s western tale of revenge doesn’t feature anything really new, but In a Valley of Violence still entertains with violent showdowns in dusty streets, and features one of the best canine performances of recent memory.