“They took everything away from me; now, I’m going to leave them with even less.” Stepping outside your comfort zone creatively is never easy, yet Ti West does it so effortlessly with his latest film, In a Valley of Violence, that you can’t help but wonder if he’s secretly been making Westerns on the side throughout his career. His affection for the genre is evident with every single frame in this ode to Spaghetti Westerns, and his confidence as a storyteller has never been higher than it is here. Simply put, In a Valley of Violence is a masterpiece and officially my new favorite film from the highly talented director who has already given us genre fans so much to love over the last 15 years.
If there’s one simple rule of life to follow, it’s to never get between a man and his dog, and that’s the theme at the heart of In A Valley of Violence. In the film, Ethan Hawke plays a loner named Paul, who just happens to be passing through a dangerous small town as he makes his way to Mexico with canine pal Abby right at his side. Looking to escape his blood-soaked past, Paul isn’t much for violence, but a loudmouthed local by the name of Gilly (James Ransone) has him thinking twice about his vow of pacifism after he brutally butchers Abby and attempts to murder Paul following a run-in that left the proud Gilly humiliated and bloodied. Hell-bent on righting Gilly’s wronging of his best pal, Paul has vengeance on his mind as he returns to the small outpost and swears that he will kill Gilly, his goons, and anyone else who happens to get in the way of his revenge.
In a Valley of Violence is a simple story of revenge elevated by some truly complex and nuanced performances from the film’s entire cast. Hawke, carrying a lot of the film with very little dialogue, makes for a fantastic yet complicated hero who has done his fair share of misdeeds and is looking for a bit of redemption through peace-minded philosophies. Ransone as Gilly (who also happens to be the town’s deputy in a fun nod to Sinister) is the complete opposite of Paul; he’s a cowardly, sniveling show-off who fights to escape the shadow of his father, the Marshal (John Travolta). Those who enjoyed Hawke and Ransone’s collaboration in the aforementioned Sinister should have an incredibly fun time seeing them square off here in such a distinctively different dynamic.
Taissa Farmiga plays Mary Anne, the potential love interest for Hawke’s character, and she is like a boisterous ray of light, so full of hope in a hopeless world, her bubbly personality infectiously likeable. Karen Gillan plays her fussy sister, Ellen, who just also happens to be Gilly’s fiancée and is quite a handful throughout In a Valley of Violence. The two actresses share great chemistry as siblings and I adored how much comedy came out of their interactions throughout the film.
Travolta, who has been delivering one of the most weirdly transcendent performances ever on The People v. O.J. Simpson, turns in one of his best and most calculated performances in years as the Marshal In A Valley of Violence and my proverbial hat is tipped to West, who gives the iconic actor some truly great material to work from. Genre darling Larry Fessenden also has a fun supporting role as one of Gilly’s thugs and proves once again that no one plays a lovable letch quite like he does.
That being said, while everyone delivers top-notch work for In a Valley of Violence, they get upstaged by their canine co-star, Jumpy, who “portrays” Paul’s companion on his travels. There’s a lot to be said about how much animal performances can add to a production, but what Jumpy does during In a Valley is truly a wonder, as he commands almost any scene he appears in. No joke, they should find a way to create an animal performance category in the Oscars just based on what Jumpy manages to do here.
While the material is handled in a very serious way, West’s biting sense of humor is on full display throughout In a Valley of Violence, which was an unexpected, yet welcome, surprise for me. The cinematography from Eric Robbins creates a beautifully sun-soaked and vibrantly visual palette, and the blistering score composed by Jeff Grace feels like it could have been plucked right out of any classic Western.
I also fell in love with In A Valley’s incredibly inventive opening credit scene that transported me back to my childhood, lying on the floor of my grandparents’ house, watching John Wayne take on the bad guys with my grandpa each and every summer. Ultimately, a lot of love is on display throughout In A Valley of Violence and that enthusiasm, from the cast and crew alike, makes a world of difference.
West has made great strides as a storyteller over the years, and while it would make me sad (as a horror fan) to see him go on to work outside the genre world, he proves that he’s ready to take the leap onto bigger projects. What he’s created with In A Valley of Violence is assured and inventive filmmaking at its very best.
Movie Score: 5/5