When Ti West announced he would be moving from horror to western, many were surprised that it would be his next feature. Horror and westerns are centred around similar themes: vengeance, violence, masculinity and generally cynical in the past three decades. In a Valley of Violence is an interesting turn from a director whose authorial vision even leads to him editing his own pictures. Editing your own films can cause the risk of self-indulgence, especially when an outside pair of eyes can tighten everything, but this is a trap that Ti West doesn’t fall into. In all his feature films, brevity – if perhaps budget related – is prevalent and is in fact one of his directorial strengths. This proves that once again.
In a Valley of Violence takes you to a town, nicknamed the ‘Valley of Violence’, with Ethan Hawke as its mysterious stranger. With only a pet dog as a companion, one he confides to and is his only conversation, there is a sense of danger around him from the offset with actions early on. From there, the character is already well-defined and Hawke explores him to his full capacity. An act of violence takes Hawke’s mysterious stranger caving into his personal demons that want violent vengeance.
West is clearly romantic about the western genre, throwing in a reference with a classic western zoom early on and honing in on a well-told, well-worn story of a wayward stranger showing his true character to the arrogant town-folk, proud of their own masculinity through self-affirmation and intimidation. Hawke’s doesn’t fall to those demanding immediate fear, causing a competition to prove one’s self in an escalating rivalry. As the camerawork ogles the Old West with the same starkness of its 35mm predecessors, West pays homage all the while crafting an adept visual style. If anything, its visual style – which is perfectly fine – is a weakness in its own lack of creativity. Through the simplicity of its visuals, there’s a need for more interesting visuals to elevate it over the homages and give power to the picture through pictures.
The cast is strong, Taissa Farmiga a specific standout in the chattering, nervously confident hotel clerk with conflicted commitments. Her exploration of her character is portrayed with precision, all the while remaining integral and interesting throughout the film. James Ransone plays a strong arrogant bastard with real gravitas to his scenes, his frame that’s thinner than the Eastwoods or Waynes of yesteryear manages to remain menacing through his dedication to masculinity portrayed through violence. The strongest standout is one that it’s a great relief, letting out a sigh and a potential hopeful ‘He’s back…’ rattling around your head. John Travolta plays the town’s sheriff, a complex coward who forces bravery and mindfulness to achieve a real resolution. Travolta’s performance is honest, strong, a little reminiscent of Stallone in Cop Land. The weakest, by quite a margin, is Karen Gillan who needs a director to tone her down as her performances sometimes lean into being inconsumable for over 1.6bn people in the world due to its hammy-ness. It works in Oculus, it’s passable in Guardians of the Galaxy, but it’s beginning to grate and needs working on since there is real talent there to explore.
Overall, In a Valley of Violence is a revisionist western in its cynicism as it is romantic about the films that inspired it. West explores the west and all of its themes with ease, allowing for a critical eye to find appetising food for thought while the narrative entertains and thrills. The casting is interesting and generally successful, especially with the Travolta comeback that’s felt overdue. Hopefully this is the first in a sleugh of the Trevolution (coining it now in case it catches on). The film’s visuals really do let it down from being a bit more excellent since their simplicity is the same downfall of Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight – but at least this didn’t waste 65mm film on an indoor set to look so average and reverential. In a Valley of Violence is a thrilling, thoughtful revisionist western with an emptiness permeating from it that stops it from being truly special.