By Frederick Blichert
Ti West has built an impressive résumé as one of horror’s most promising new auteurs. With films like The House of the Devil (2009) and The Innkeepers (2011), he showcased his rich knowledge of the horror genre, creating a fresh new vision with familiar themes. With In a Valley of Violence, he proves his mettle helming a western too.
From the first scene, West shows off his love of spaghetti westerns, with a stylish zoom-in and animated title sequence pointedly reminiscent of Sergio Leonne. Our hero, Paul (Ethan Hawke), says very little, and even remains unnamed for a long while, harking back to Clint Eastwood’s iconic “Man with No Name.”
The set-up is simple and pure, delightful pulp. Paul is headed to Mexico with his dog, Abbie. He hopes to leave a dark past behind and start fresh, but a stop in the town of Denton pits him against local goons who don’t like outsiders. The Marshall (John Travolta, delivering his strongest performance in recent memory) is somewhat reasonable but doesn’t care much to rein in his wildcard deputy son, Gilly (James Ransone). Gilly and his Cronies catch up with Paul and Abbie after they’ve left town, looking to put the drifter in his place. But they are no criminal masterminds, and even a simple murder seems beyond them. Paul, who’s been left with nothing, sets out to “leave them with less.”
Paul’s motives are as clear as his one-liners are sharp, but some bits of grey area seep in too. Travolta’s Marshall, in particular, is a conflicted and conflicting figure. He is largely to blame for his son’s carefree violence, but he’s also deeply sympathetic, looking to avoid bloodshed on all sides. And Gilly’s vocally supportive fiancée Ellen (Karen Gillan) is a victim of circumstance, nearly as relatable as her charming, put-upon sister Mary Anne (Taissa Farmiga). West does a terrific job of balancing old-west action with a genuine emotional draw, and a great deal of humour too–gallows humour, to be sure. He also taps into his horror roots to ramp up the suspense in a few scenes, to great effect.
The film succeeds mightily on most levels. Let’s hope it’s a good omen for the genre as a whole.
In a Valley of Violence: Sat, Oct. 1 at 9:00pm at the Rio & Mon, Oct. 10 4:45pm at IN09