In a Valley of Violence opens with the sound of a dog panting set to black. Hearing the heavy breathing, I came to the conclusion that this must be a dog. And yes, this is a dog, who, alongside its owner, is in dire need of soap. Or so Paul (Ethan Hawke) wants us to believe as he talks to a woman we never see, a la Dale Cooper.
Paul, on his journey to get clean, finds a stranded priest who claims he’s just trying to get to the nearby town of Denton. After a short exchange, the priest tries to one-up Paul and steal his horse. In the ensuing scuffle, we learn Paul is firm, but fair. Paul and dog are presented as something of a mystery, as the movie tries to hold its secrets to its chest.
Having been mentioned by name, Denton becomes the destination where Paul soon runs afoul of the local Kid wannabe, Gilly. He’s a loud bully, and little else. James Ransone, an actor who expertly toed the line between sympathetic and punchable in The Wire and Generation Kill, portrays Gilly. Ransone does what he can with the role, but Gilly doesn’t go any deeper than serious angst. Much like Alfie Allen’s character in John Wick, his purpose is to push the retired killer (“I promised I was done killing”) too far and spark the promised bloodshed of the tile. Gilly’s father, the Marshal (John Travolta), promises to protect him despite his ignorant actions. Travolta, looking the part of a tired gunslinger, is at first threatening but develops into more of a punchline by the movie’s end.
In a Valley of Violence is Ti West’s seventh feature film. His body of work shows an admirable attempt to explore different genres, though he is most known for his horror works, like The House of the Devil. The expectation that a director this creative would work to subvert the Western is not, in my opinion, unreasonable. Whether West does or not (or even wanted to) is debatable, as the script mostly sticks to its genre conventions. His film is not that different from the white hat/black hat pictures of yesteryear, for better or for worse. The score, by Jeff Grace, plays to the tune of Morricone; the silhouette title sequence is decidedly Spaghetti. Hawke’s Paul, on first glance, is playing Bill Munny.
“Play” is the key word here, and has to do with the most interesting aspect of the film. Denton is a town playing dress up. Despite having “fallen on hard times” and being located in the New Mexico desert, the buildings show no sign of wear. Its emptiness (there are maybe eleven citizens) makes the town appear like an elaborate play set where everyone pretends to be something they’re not. When Gilly refers to Denton as the Valley of Violence it quickly rings false as Gilly himself proves to be extremely inept at attempted murder. “I didn’t know it would be like this,” Tubby the henchman says, as Paul enacts his vengeance. It appears that violence, despite Gilly’s proclamation, rarely visits the Valley of Denton. Travolta’s Marshal is spoken about like he’s a tyrant, yet he limps around town and hides behind deputies. His only moment of “tyranny” is when he beats Gilly with a cane. Most curious is Paul. When pushed, his tough lines don’t coincide with his fearful expression, a quirk that fits once more is revealed about his past.
Hawke, who looks like he’s wearing his father’s clothes, was an interesting choice, echoing Guy Pearce’s complacent turn in Ravenous. When he takes down the first henchmen (the great Larry Fessenden), Hawke’s Batman voice is outright bizarre—shouting, he literally drools on Fessenden’s head while holding a knife to his throat. Clearly, Paul wants to play the part of the savior that love interest Mary Anne (Taissa Farmiga) imagined him to be, but he’s not sure how to do so with any kind of composure or emotional confidence. Vengeance as a concept sounds simple, but not everyone knows how to deliver on its promise.
Farmiga is one of two female leads in the film, the other being Karen Gillan, whose character definitely lives in a make-believe world. One moment she’s playing the part of the comedic sister to Mary Anne, then a Bonnie to Gilly’s Clyde. Farmiga, at least initially, plays the gosh-darn type, which adds some much-needed personality to the film. Once the plot kicks in she takes a backseat. Here’s a sentence I tire of writing: the women in this film have little to do.
The film speeds towards its only conclusion. Like Fulci’s Four of the Apocalypse, the climatic scene takes place in a barn. Continuing this playtime illusion, the barn floor is free of dirt and manure. If you’re expecting In a Valley of Violence to say something new about the genre, you might be disappointed. Still, if you’re a Western purist, there’s a lot to like. What’s here is a portrait of people in denial who fantasize about becoming something else, anything, even if it’s being a murderer.