If westerns have taught us nothing else—and I’ve taken far too many life lessons from the genre—it’s that nothing brings a killer who has renounced killing back to his old ways like messing with his family or his dog. That’s the primary education a small-town numbskull learns in writer/director Ti West’s take on the spaghetti western, In a Valley of Violence.
Over the course of movies like The House of the Devil, The Innkeepers, and The Sacrament, West has shown an uncanny ability to ape genre trappings in ways most who attempt it fail. His films have a ring of authenticity that other imitations and homages often lack.
Usually operating in horror, this time out he turns his lens on the dusty American frontier and the lives of the hard men who occupied that space. And again, his attention to detail is so spot on to movies like The Man with No Name Trilogy, The Great Silence, and Death Rides a Horse, that I practically expected the dialogue to be dubbed in and mismatched against the movements of the actors’ lips.
From the opening scene to the stylized credits to the whip pans, sudden zooms, and the Ennio Morricone-esque score, In a Valley of Violence screams what it is from the first frame. And while that’s a great strength of the picture, it’s also a key weakness. Enamored with the aesthetics, tone, and feel, West and company check off all the genre boxes, but never take the time to add much to them. What unfolds is an overly familiar, beat for beat revenge western that, while entertaining at times, delivers little to set it apart.
Ethan Hawke plays a grizzled loner, heading to Mexico with his dog, running from a vague, nebulous past doled out piece by piece as the movie progresses. Eventually he gets a name, but in true western fashion, he spends much of the runtime nameless. He knows it’s a bad idea, but to save time and get a hot meal, he stops off in Denton, Texas, a frontier shithole populated by nitwits and big fish in a small pond who think they’re tough shit. Of course, he runs afoul of local hot-head Gilly (James Ransone), and trouble occurs.
In a Valley of Violence attempts to interject witty banter and gallows humor—the Tarantino influence can’t be denied—with mixed results. Hawke is serviceable as the grim cowboy pushed to deeds of violence—he just wants to be left alone, he’s had enough killing. Ransone plays Gilly like he’s still playing Ziggy in The Wire—cocky and insecure, he has a confidence and self-assuredness that belies his overall incompetence. Karen Gillan bluffs and blusters as Ellen, Gilly’s main squeeze, in a performance that feels more in tune with the stage than the screen. And Taissa Farmiga plays Ellen’s sister, Mary Anne, the one good person in the whole damn town, the one who feels trapped and wants more and looks for any avenue of escape.
The real star of In the Valley of Violence (aside from Jumpy the dog), however, is John Travolta as the town’s Marshall. And also Gilly’s father. Alternately funny and blood-chilling, he’s as good as he’s been in years. He knows his son is a screw up and that he’s enabled him by cleaning up his messes his whole life, but it’s still his son. As resigned as the strange drifter is to his ultimate fate, so too is the Marshall. Neither one wants the violent clash that’s coming, but both know they have no way to avoid it, and the two form a nice counterbalance for each other.
Spaghetti westerns work like they do because of the sparse, barebones approach. Gritty, stoic men say little, and in that silence speak volumes. Here, obvious dialogue guts all subtext and subtlety, and the protagonist spells out his thoughts and motivations as his inner monologue becomes very exterior and every word out of his mouth lands super on the nose.
Fine for what it is—loving imitation and momentary distraction—In a Valley of Violence never becomes anything more, paced and plotted precisely like the films it emulates. Entertaining enough, it’s on par with a meal where you know you ate, it stemmed your hunger, but you have trouble remembering exactly what was on the plate. [Grade: C+]