“In a Valley of Violence”
1 hour, 44 minutes
October is just not turning out to be my month for making it out to the theater. When I’ve got the time, there’s nothing to watch, and when I don’t, well, Tom Cruise is all over the screen punching out the bad guys. The big movie this weekend was the “Jack Reacher” sequel, “Never Go Back” which, despite getting poor to middling reviews, is one I’m sure I will eventually enjoy because Tom Cruise punching out the bad guys is right up my alley.
Alas, that will have to wait. Which is not to say I have nothing to report. I did see a brand new film this weekend, available on streaming at the same time it enjoys a very limited release in theaters. “In a Valley of Violence” is a new western, starring Ethan Hawke and John Travolta, and directed by indie horror darling, Ti West.
West, known for such films as “The Innkeepers,” “V/H/S,” and “House of the Devil,” pivots sharply to the West with this latest film, though it does retain a few horrifying moments. Hawke is Paul, a mysterious drifter who, along with his loyal dog Abby, decides to detour through the nearly abandoned town of Denton on his way to Mexico. Denton, once a mining boom town has, unfortunately, taken a dive since the silver ran out and is now run by a marshal, his son, and a gaggle of lackeys.
The marshal, played by Travolta, isn’t necessarily a bad guy, just a tired old soldier who’s not above taking advantage of the desperation of the citizenry. His son Gilly, however, is a real piece of work. After an argument in the bar turns into an embarrassing beat down for Gilly, the die is cast for all manner of terrible things to come. If you’ve seen “John Wick,” you already know how this is all going to turn out without me even saying anything, and if you haven’t, well, I won’t spoil it for you. Suffice it to say that Paul does not turn out to be a particularly forgiving sort.
One of the things that West is able to do, that most horror filmmakers are able to do, is deliver on a modest budget. Westerns can go either way, but the director does a fine job on what is likely a pretty small amount of money. The cinematography is beautiful, stark and oddly timeless. The acting is good, for the most part, though some of that could be the writing, which takes some odd turns. I loved the music, which was reminiscent of a spaghetti western, without being super obvious, ala Quentin Tarantino. I had few problems with the film — the story is engaging, the characters are well-fleshed out, and it all seems well designed to suit a particular vision.
That said, some aspects of the movie kind of threw me, especially because of that deliberate feel. For one, some of the dialogue, especially that of the two women characters, sisters Mary Anne, played by Taissa Farmiga, and Ellen, played by Karen Gillan feels very anachronistic. It’s old west in theme, but in delivery and construction, the phrasing feels new. Is this intentional, or just a mistake? It feels like a pretty large problem in an otherwise tight production, so I’m inclined to believe the director wanted it that way.
Another oddity, a small one, I’ll admit, is one that gnawed at me despite its relative unimportance. Paul and Abby are bedded down for the night out in the wilderness and the camera takes pains to focus several times on a nearby campfire. The fire produces no smoke, has little in the way of embers or ashes, and even has a slight blue tint at its base.
Anyone who has used natural gas knows what they are looking at when they see it. For the life of me, I can’t figure out why, though. It seems deliberate, especially how often they showed the fire. I also considered that maybe this was just a cost saving measure, but in what world is setting up a gas fired campfire set cheaper than just burning some wood? I don’t know — maybe the film was deeper than I get. It was certainly entertaining enough.
The movie has a few third act problems which I, as an unapologetic armchair quarterback, figured out easy fixes for, but overall I was impressed at both the performances and story, which puts this movie in the above-average category.
As for the title, well, it sounds cool, but makes almost no sense in the finished film. Grinning wickedly, a character named Tubby tells Paul that he’d better watch his back because the local townsfolk call the part of town he’s in “the valley of violence.” Really? Seems a little pretentious for a bunch of broke down silver mine rejects, but who knows. The phrase is never mentioned again, so they must not be too married to it.
“In a Valley of Violence” is rated R for language and violence.
Chris Jenness is an art teacher, freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.