"They call this place the valley of violence, so why don't you back up before you find out why?"
Ethan Hawke has been in two westerns this year, the first was the high budget, high energy and extremely high profile ‘The Magnificent Seven’ directed by Antoine Fuqua. The second is almost the exact opposite of that, not just for its small budget and the fact that rather than being a studio project it was directed, written and edited by one person, but whereas the previous film seemed to take itself about as seriously as it could, ‘In a Valley of Violence’ most certainly doesn’t.
A drifter named Paul (Ethan Hawke) and his dog are making their way to Mexico through the Old West. On route they arrive at a local tavern, but a random act of violence and argument with an egocentric psychopath by the name of Gilly (James Ransone), who also happens to be the son of the local Marshal (John Travolta), drags both Paul and an entire town of misfits into a bloody conflict of revenge.
One distinct similarity this Hawke-centric western does share with its counterpart ‘The Magnificent Seven’ is the way in which the two indulge in the trappings and tropes of any classic western. Now of course, indulging in references to other westerns is by no means a negative (just ask anyone who regards ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’ as a definitive masterpiece, such as myself), but what makes ‘In the Valley of Violence’ superior in its use of them is the way in which it establishes a consistent tone from which to base them on. It rarely takes itself too seriously but at the same time finds an ideal balance that distinguishes it from being a mere parody, in which it realises the weight of each situation and grounds them in reality but also plays them for their ludicrousness, which results in great entertainment.
Despite starting at a slow pace the film rapidly picks up speed and never stops racing towards the finish line until the credits roll. Right up until the final act both bullets and bodies are flying in a spectacularly bloody conclusion the tension is always mounting, the pace of the story is always escalating and the scale is forever climbing in order to make that final confrontation as satisfying as it is. ‘In the Valley of Violence’ may not be a complex tale, but it executes its simplistic story with such terrific energy and brilliant craftsmanship that it is difficult not to be caught up in the old fashioned feel of the western genre, but coupled with the violent liveliness of modern indie filmmaking.
What also separates ‘In a Valley of Violence’ is its sense of absurdist humour that is only made all the more effective by how the cast seem to be in on the joke as well. Not to an extent where they play each scene winking to the audience, but they tread such a thin line of commitment to the scenario and comedic sensibilities that it draws the viewer in and leaves them thoroughly entertained by the end. In many ways this is exemplified by the two leading cast members, with Hawke being a terrific embodiment of the classic western outsider, one who conveys a sense of world weariness and a haunted interior that is executed perfectly. Travolta on the other hand is giving one of his funniest performances in years, being impeccably intelligent yet easily infuriated and Travolta makes the most of both characteristics amid all of it carrying an air of intimidation somehow. However, rather miraculously, Travolta’s tour de force never took me out of the movie due to its pitch perfect tone that matched the attitude of its cast perfectly (it also may or may not help for this particular reviewer that the movie also contains two former 'Doctor Who' actors in the form of Burn Gorman and Karen Gillan).
Of course trying to take the film seriously is a difficult ordeal, and that sometimes shows when the script asks you to comply with some of the more dramatic scenes that don’t seem to have quite as heavy an effect as they were possibly intended to. Not only that but when the movie has to shift between its long and more contemplative scenes to moments of higher energy the result can be somewhat jarring. Ti West’s script is at its best when it’s carefully treading the line between absurdity and reality, and West has a good enough eye for this that he knows when to play up each aspect simultaneously. Not only that but with such a grand sense of care and detail that is applied to each frame, it is reflected in his direction that West has a deep love of….well, the west.
As humorous as it is violent, ‘In a Valley of Violence’ is a lovingly crafted and terrifically executed homage to the western genre.