Self-admittedly, I’m not the biggest horror fan, so my first introduction to director Ti West was at the 2013 AFI Film Festival where his thriller/horror film The Sacrament was shown during the midnight screening series. As the lights came up at the end, I felt rejuvenated– despite it being nearly 2am. There was something about the way this director works a story that kept me on the edge of my seat, from guessing at potential plot twists, to excitedly giddy when the unexpected happens. This same charisma can be felt in West’s latest directorial endeavor In a Valley of Violence. A departure from his traditional safe zone of low budget horror, this in no way means that Valley lacks in the obscenely bloody department.
Ethan Hawke plays Paul, a handsome drifter who is wandering through the hot and barren desert towards Mexico with only the clothes on his back and a loyal canine companion protectively at his side, a border collie/blue heeler mix, named Abby (Jumpy). While scouting their next move, Paul discovers a shortcut through the poor and forgotten mining town of Denton, often referred to by outsiders as the “Valley of Violence.” Paul quickly learns that Denton lives up to its reputation as he comes across the outspoken and brash Gilly (James Ransone), son of the town’s Marshal (John Travolta), as well as his fianceé Ellen (Karen Gillan), and his equally obnoxious associates.
A fist fight between Paul and Gilly in the town’s square is just the beginning of a terrible downward spiral for both the men and the town as a whole. Revenge becomes the foremost thing on their minds, and neither one plans to stop until they see the other dead. Boundaries are crossed, relationships are torn apart, and blood spews from every possible direction. However, Paul discovers that not everyone is out to get him. The young and loquacious Mary Anne (Taissa Farmiga), who happens to be Ellen’s younger sister, becomes deeply infatuated with Paul’s mysterious character and sees him as her ticket out of town.
West does a superb job in paying homage to the classic movies of Western Americana. From the stylized opening credits to the dramatic camera push-ins on characters and even the color grade, he sets an old-school mood with a fresh, distinct attitude. It may be that West attributes some of Valley‘s style to horror master Quentin Tarantino, specifically The Hateful Eight and Django Unchained. Although, with a runtime of 104 minutes (compared to 167 minutes and 165 minutes, respectively) West’s pacing proves to be tighter and more succinct.
Expect to see another solid performance from Hawke, who takes his even-keeled, grungy anti-hero persona and delivers high-intensity action to the scenes that need it most. Not to be upstaged is John Travolta as The Marshal. It was truly a pleasure seeing Travolta in this role; not only did he steal scenes with his spot on comedic timing, it is generally good to see him back on the big screen. And speaking of stealing scenes– I believe Jumpy’s performance as Abby the dog is the best we’ve seen since The Artist. Given the fact that she tucks herself into bed, takes bubble baths and a myriad of other equally impressive tricks. As the only dog cast in the role, she really is the MVP of the film.
All of this to say, Ti West’s film, which he also wrote and edited, is a fantastic and original work from the guy previously known as the “horror director.” West shows the film industry and fans alike what is possible when stereotypes become broken and one challenges himself creatively. As you get ready to see In a Valley of Violence this weekend (and I recommend you should), be prepared to laugh, shed a few tears, and most importantly, be ready to be entertained.
‘In a Valley of Violence’ is rated R for violence and language. 104 minutes. Opening at the ArcLight Santa Monica and On Demand & Digital HD Friday, October 21st.