In a Valley of Violence (2016)
Director: Ti West
Writer: Ti West
Actors: Ethan Hawke, John Travolta, Taissa Farmiga
In its own harsh, uncompromising manner, In a Valley of Violence scoffs in the face of well-wrought western tropes, and comes away with a delightfully intense bloodbath. I can say unreservedly that I am a fan of westerns, from the meticulous Italian chaos of Sergio Corbucci’s Companñeros to the somber philosophy of Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country, I love the western genre. As is obvious from the opening titles which closely imitate the opening credits of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, director Ti West (The House of the Devil) loves it too. His love of westerns is most obviously displayed by his eagerness to subvert the genre’s tropes, which he does here by injecting characters with weakness, stupidity, and more than a little comedy. This comedy most often comes from the committed and somewhat silly performance of a masterful John Travolta (Swordfish, Battlefield Earth, Scientology), who portrays tobacco chewing bravado while his character becomes a strange alternate protagonist.
The story’s central hero is Paul, Ethan Hawkes’ mysterious drifter traveling alone with a dog. Paul and his strangely intelligent companion, Addie, are linked via an almost supernatural connection. These travel companions make an ill-fated pit stop in Denton, a town terrorized by the son of the local sheriff (James Ransome), who practices wanton cruelty with impunity. This character, Deputy Gilly Martin is perturbed when newcomer Paul (Ethan Hawke), fails to respond quickly to his inquiries. This simple perceived slight leads to a chain reaction of escalations, culminating in a climactic death that is both ludicrous and metaphorically perfect. The unstoppable expansion and eruption of violence is so reasonless, yet so inevitable, that In a Valley of Violence could be said to make a permanently timely statement about the ease and cost of killing.
These are pretty heavy issues, however, and they might weigh down a movie as violent as this one, but it is saved by the aforementioned Mr. Travolta, playing the sweetest Marshal ever. Travolta’s character is kind, reasonable, merciful, and hilarious. Marshal Clyde Martin (Travolta) has one fatal flaw, however, his love for his son. As terrible as Gilly had become, he was still the Marshal’s son, and family trumps everything. I think that this, in many ways, is the central conceit of In the Valley of Violence. That even the most positive emotional reflexes, like a father’s love for his son or a drifter’s love of his dog, can lead to copious bloodshed.
Westerns can be intense, savage, and unapologetically brutal, but they can also be funny, touching, and philosophical. In the Valley of Violence can do all of these things, but it is one thing above all, a kick-ass western. The music is dramatic and propulsive; shrieking with energetic violins that sound like stabbing. The performances are all exemplary, particularly Taissa Farmiga, who brings a mad spirit to the role of Mary-Anne, charming with every nervous giggle. This is a western of surprising depth and fantastic production, but what really leaves an impression is the sheer fun of it.