In a Valley of Violence Review

by C. Rachel Katz

I have a complicated relationship with Ti West. While I respect him as a director, I don’t think much of him as a writer, and I believe he has a lot to answer for with M is for Miscarriage. Add to that the fact that I’m not big into westerns, and anyone reading this can see that I’m going to have a hard time being objective about Ti West’s western In a Valley of Violence.

Ethan Hawke is Paul, an army deserter on his way to Mexico. Although he doesn’t want to, he has to pass through Denton, a small town in the middle of nowhere that’s fallen on hard times. Planning only to stay long enough for some food shopping and a hot bath, Paul inadvertently winds up in a fight with the local bully, who just happens to be the marshal’s son. Paul and the marshal come to a gentleman’s agreement and Paul leaves town, but the marshal’s son is no gentleman and the next morning Paul returns to Denton with vengeance on his mind.

Westerns are a genre driven by vengeance and justice, and In a Valley of Violence is no different. Paul’s vengeance quest is fully approved by the audience, and most of the movie is just him killing off the rest of the cast. Which is fine. Although it’s impossible to sympathize with the villains, there’s a certain amount of pleasurable dread in waiting for them to die. But all that justifiable homicide—Paul’s very raison d’etre—is undermined by the fact that he doesn’t kill the last and most important person on his list.

In a Valley of Violence
Directed by
Ti West
Ethan Hawke, John Travolta, James Ransone, Taissa Farmiga
Release Date
21 October 2016
Rachel’s Grade: B

And here’s where I take issue with Ti West the screenwriter. While Ti West the director knows how to block action, frame the shot, and build atmosphere, Ti West the writer doesn’t fully understand pacing, character motivation, and payoff. In what feels like an attempt to make up for missed opportunities, In a Valley of Violence features more dialogue than all of West’s other auteur projects put together. The problem is, a lot of that dialogue is either window dressing or exposition, and the western genre is known for its strong, silent characters. If Ti West were going full-on Tarantino, making a revisionist western pastiche, that’d be one thing, but he’s not. In a Valley of Violence is a straight-up revenge western in which people always say what they’re thinking, using the most words possible. All character development feels rushed, almost perfunctory, as if Paul and Mary Anne have to fall in love because that’s what happens in movies.

In addition to a front-loaded script, the lines are delivered with a broadly comedic flair, though the plot is deadly serious. Although I believe some of the humour is intentional, not all of it is and it makes for a film that is slightly uneven in tone. This minor identity crisis is underscored by a soundtrack that wavers between horror and western sensibilities.

In an effort to seem less one-sided and subjective, I’ll end this review on a positive note. Two stand-out performances deserve mentioning. First is John Travolta in the role of the town marshal. He fully embodies the character and delivers his lines with just the right blend of gravitas and levity. The second performance worth talking about is Abby the dog, who upstages just about everyone in the film. Abby, played by a dog named Jumpy, is a beautiful border collie/blue heeler mix who steals every scene she’s in.

In a Valley of Violence was preceded by Olga. In it, a young woman exacts her revenge on the man who destroyed her childhood. Although Olga suffers from unnecessary repetition of the plot, it features some amazing action sequences. Worth checking out.

Viewed at Toronto After Dark Film Festival 2016