in_a_valley_of_violence_3Year: 2016
Director(s): Ti West
Writer(s): Ti West
Region of Origin: US

Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Rating: R
35mm, Color, 104 mins

Synopsis: A mysterious stranger and a random act of violence drag a town of misfits and nitwits into the bloody crosshairs of revenge. (Source)

In a Valley of Violence is so good, I almost don’t want to say anything other than it’s a film you absolutely shouldn’t miss. Since I do feel the need to sing its praises, I’ll keep this short and sweet, confirming that, yes, this is Ti West breathing new life into the western genre. West has crafted a career around genre dissection, and that expertise gives his latest film a sense of vitality, taking his penchant for prolonged tension, extraordinary circumstances and naturalistic characters to new heights. The result is a film that transports the wild west into a raw, mundane world that counts the cost of violence while showcasing it as unrefined and savage. There’s also an exceptional ensemble at the fore (including one really cute dog), bringing to life a rapid-fire succession of catchy dialogue and crowd-pleasing showdowns. Suffice it to say, there’s plenty to love here whether you’re into westerns or not.

The story centers around a mysterious drifter named Paul (Ethan Hawke) and his dog Abbie, who just want to make their way to Mexico. Crossing through the desert, they’re forced to pass through a small town called Denton, which is nearly empty since the mine dried up years ago. It’s now run by a local Marshal (John Travolta) and his troublemaker of a son, Gilly (James Ransone), who operates as the town’s Deputy and runs things according to his impulsive whims. It doesn’t take long for Paul and Gilly to come to blows over something inconsequential, setting off a chain of events which calls for blood no matter the cost. At this point, no one’s safe and nothing is guaranteed.

Objectively, you’ve got the familiar elements here – the drifter, a town in need and insatiable vengeance, but none of it plays out the way we’d expect. West’s film is all about subverting expectation, and he does it masterfully. This is done best during the film’s first act, which puts every character on a level playing field. Initially, there are no heroes or villains, only people trying their best to survive with the terrible hands they’ve been dealt. As we get introduced to each character, the film plays out like a string of tense conversations in which anything can happen. West builds and releases tension with each encounter, compounding the stakes until things become uncontrollable and the film transforms into a full-on siege. It’s then that all bets are off, and as a fight for survival converges around town, things escalate to a wildly entertaining conclusion, one that mixes graphic violence with bleak, but rapturous humor.

in_a_valley_of_violence_2In line with the film’s sharp, focused plot, is a cast who lend the story a flawed, but relatable humanity. Everyone is at the top of their game, with realistically textured performances which immerse us into the film’s dark desperation. As the stranger, Paul, Ethan Hawke is as charming as he’s ever been. His character is one of a few words, but there’s so much torment and pain behind his eyes, that he doesn’t need to say anything. His battle with PTSD and how he’s running from a disgraced past is a piercing portrait of inner conflict. As Denton’s brash wild card, Gilly, James Ransone proves that he should be a household name. Ransone gives a child-like innocence to Gilly’s tough guy posturing, and even though we hate what his character does, he’s totally mesmerizing, drawing depth from what could’ve been a flat role. As the town’s reluctant Marshal, John Travolta is the film’s chaotic neutral. You think you’ve got him figured out, but there’s more to him than you could imagine. Travolta completely throws himself into the role and delivers a character that’s hard to classify. Taissa Farmiga and Karen Gillan are great as two local sisters caught in the crossfire, while Larry Fessenden, Tommy Nohilly and Toby Huss round out Gilly’s gang with as a group of conflicted misfits. As if that weren’t enough, wait till you see Paul’s sidekick, Abbie the dog, played by Jumpy – that’s all i’ll say!

Without a doubt, this is West’s most fully formed film, and it’d be remiss of me if I didn’t mention how I watched the entire thing with an uncontrollable grin on my face. There are times when the madness of it makes you want to laugh or cry (I might’ve done both simultaneously), and the film is a great example of how to turn influences into something fresh. In a Valley of Violence grips us and never lets up until that final frame, and by then, we’re left thirsting for more.

SG