Written & Directed by Ti West
Just a week or two ago I was pining for more Westerns in today’s cinematic landscape. It has grown barren of such genre films in recent years, creating a ghost town with only a few residents holding the dilapidated structures that make up the town together. The Magnificent Seven was a derivative but very well made and entertaining Western. I will take that with how few get made these days. So imagine my disappointment when I sit down to see writer/director Ti West’s interpretation of the genre only to find an original story that, while also being derivative, is also painstakingly boring and half-baked. I will never call for new talent to stop exploring the stories they want to tell. Small and independent films are what fuel the industry into making great new films and pressing the medium forward. Blockbusters pay the bills, and that’s fine, but In a Valley of Violence plays with good concepts on a smaller level without any decent payoff in the end.
Paul (Ethan Hawke) appears to be a drifter when he encounters a drunken priest outside of Denton, Texas. After the priest, apparently desperate for help, attempts to hold Paul up, we see first hand his ability to defend himself, along with the help of his loyal dog Abby. Paul makes his way into town hoping to find water, supplies and maybe a fresh bath as he journeys to the Mexican border. But after an encounter with the town’s deputy, Gilly (James Ransone), goes decidedly different than Gilly and his mates predicted, Paul wishes nothing more than for his hot bath at the hotel and to move on, something the town’s Marshal (John Travolta), Gilly’s father, also wants. But with Gilly’s pride shaken, he and his gang threaten the stalwart Paul, preventing him from moving along and in fact provoking him to seek revenge.
Right from the start I could tell Ti West was hoping to craft a B-style Western that was both stylish and violent (think Quentin Tarantino). The opening scene with the priest is a good lens into what the rest of the film would look like and how it would feel. It’s a tense situation with a good premise, but ultimately comes up short in feeling like anything more than a completely scripted and staged presentation, a fake when compared to the real McCoy. The screenplay many times feels forced and just on the cusp of a great idea while falling significantly short of it. The violence promised is often subdued, until it isn’t. The menace of Paul and Gilly and his associates is subdued, until it isn’t. But this is not a case of surprise violence or even carefully measured technique. Instead the film feels as though it tragically falls between attempting to embrace being a B-style film and being taken seriously.
Too many of the performances are poor and shoddy without going far enough for them to be entertaining. For instance, you would expect John Travolta to be a little zanier. Karen Gillan is over the top, yet doesn’t stand out and James Ransone could have gone much further with his character’s more unique personality traits. Ethan Hawke on the other hand plays Paul so lackadaisically that sometimes I wondered if he really even had a heartbeat. Taissa Farmiga is the lone bright spot, along with Toby Huss, who doesn’t get nearly enough screen time as one of Gilly’s thugs. They were the only two who truthfully felt at home in this setting, in this story. The story itself was also reflective of the performances. It shows promise without ever delivering. It is far too languid in its casual pacing and plotting to ever bring about the heightened sense of revenge or violence it so clearly desires. Scene after scene offers great set piece potential only to end with disappointing execution and payoff.
I appreciate what Ti West is trying to do here, but he lacks the execution and vision to deliver it. The bare bones of the story are there, with Paul being some sort of Old West John Wick, seeking revenge on those who preyed upon his past life. In a Valley of Violence is not as violent, not as funny, and certainly not as fun as John Wick manages to be though. Westerns still need to continue to be made. It is a ripe era of American history which can allow for a vast array of interesting and compelling stories still relevant today. The Magnificent Seven managed this. We had seen that story and those characters before, but at least when it wanted to be violent, it was violent, when it wanted to be entertaining, it was entertaining. In a Valley of Violence is full of false promises.