In a Valley of Violence
In a Valley of Violence
2016. Directed by Ti West
"What's a priest need so many bullets for?"
Horror auteur Ti West dips his toe into the western genre, delivering a simplistic revenge yarn with a refreshing sense of humor and a wonderfully practical presentation. Using a handcrafted set and robust cinematography, In a Valley of Violence is a barn burner that perfectly emulates the sudden violence of western classics while constructing a self contained parable about the slippery slope of vendetta.
Paul is a deserter from the Civil War who is travelling to Mexico. His journey takes him through the town of Denton where he encounters Gilly, the odious son of the town's self appointed sheriff. After a tense encounter, the sheriff urges Paul to leave town. On the plains outside town, Paul is ambushed by Gilly and his compatriots and left for dead. Swearing revenge, Paul returns to town and unleashes a tide of violence, using the rage of his Civil War demons to bring justice to his assailants.
A respectful ode to cable TV spaghetti westerns, West's script glides along the familiar notes with a breezy sense of self awareness. The dialogue has a razor sharp edge that perfectly offsets the witty repartee. John Travolta gives one of his best performances in years as the morally gray Sheriff. One of the many surprises is how he manages to elevate the corrupt potentate pastiche by portraying his character as a flawed father figure who is more inconvenienced than malicious. Virtually all of the characters, save James Ransone's squeaky villain Gilly, are trying desperately to avoid confrontation, with each gunfighter submitting to the violence with hopeless acceptance when it finally happens. Ethan Hawke is always solid, but his portrayal of Paul is so disarming and humanly fragile that he instantly garner's empathy that sustains throughout. Taissa Farmiga, Karen Gillan, are solid in their supporting roles, but are overshadowed by the film's unapologetic machismo. Burn Gorman has the best role as a rogue clergyman who bookends the carnage with a gleefully profane offering.
Eric Robbins's cinematography is elusive, capturing stunning southwestern vistas and dangerous campfires with wide shots and then obtrusively sticking to the combatants during the final sequence. There is one scene in particular with half of the cast on a rooftop and the others in a building that presents the action from multiple vantages, enhancing the tension by giving the viewer an omnipotent viewpoint. Adam Willis's set design involves a town that was built from scratch. Malgosia Turzanka's costumes are period perfect with Paul's drifter ensemble contrasting the townsfolk who are representative of town caught between the wild west and the ever encroaching threat of a civilized world.
Long time collaborator Jeff Grace's score has the expected tones of a showdown spliced with campy abandon that is highlighted during the exceptional opening credits sequence. This is a theme that runs throughout In a Valley of Violence. While the bloodshed during the climax is brutal, the entire film presents itself as a endearing throwback to the glory days of the western. It never aims for high art and never devolves into self parody, keeping the focus on its simple story with complex notions of revenge and fatherhood.
Available now for digital rental, In a Valley of Violence is an engaging film that delivers everything it promises. There is depth for those who seek it, but this film works far better when approaching it as a revenge story with six shooters, exactly the way it was intended.