In a Valley of Violence: Ti-red West-ern, by Jim Rohner
I’ve been waiting for Ti West to make a great film ever since I first saw The House of the Devil. A slow burn of a low budget horror film, The House of the Devil worked because West knew how to work around his financial confines to best evoke mood and atmosphere. The Innkeepers was a step in the right direction even if it spiritually followed the same template, but it was The Sacrament, a fictionalized depiction of a Jim Jones type emotionally and tonally subsidiary to any documentary you’d find on the Peoples Temple, that made me begin to question whether West was spinning his wheels as a filmmaker.
Despite my disappointment, I surmised that In a Valley of Violence, despite breaking pattern as a Western, would be the true litmus test to gauge whether West had it in him to make a truly great film, as a truly great filmmaker would and should rise above genre. If In the Valley of Violence is indeed a true indicator, then West can’t and won’t.
In a Valley of Violence has all the trappings of a standard Western yet can’t rise above anything other than the standard because of what little it adds to the conversations of either independent film or Westerns. That’s not to say that an indie genre film has to re-invent the wheel to justify its own existence but the way that the genre tropes are unveiled in Valley feels more like filmmaker checking off a list of necessities than an organically unfolding narrative: Yes, there’s a grizzled protagonist with a checkered past in Paul (Ethan Hawke); yes, there’s a Marshal with initially morally ambiguous motives (John Travolta); and yes, there’s an isolated town run by no-goodniks.
It’s the leader of these no-goodniks, Gilly (James Ransone), who loudly declares for all the world (read: a traveling gun salesman and Paul as our audience surrogate) to hear that the town of Denton rests in the heart of the titular Valley of Violence. It’s a good thing he says it too, because if not for this film’s first – but certainly not last – violation of the “show, don’t tell” law of storytelling, there’d be no indication that the valley Paul wandered into is any different from any other of Earth’s cleft palates. Sure, there’s a random act of violence against Paul that sets him on a path of bloody retribution (this is a Western, after all), but seeing as Denton is populated by 12 people at the most – only half of whom speak on account of being main characters – there’s not enough backstory or world building to assume that what transpires between Paul and Gilly is anything other than an anomalous reaction to an unfriendly outsider rather than par for the course. Even if the film is attempting to maintain the mantra of “violence begets violence,” how is that interesting? More importantly, how is this film building on it?
This on the nose nature (“he spit on Gilly!” declares one character after another character – shockingly – spits on Gilly) is even more frustrating when you consider how often West sabotages what seems to be a tone of graveness by juxtaposing drama with out of place comedy, more often than not at the hands of the film’s only females, sisters Ellen (Karen Gillen) and Mary Anne (Taissa Farmiga). While the former is guilty of general, unmotivated nagging, the latter mistakes naivety for childishness, exacerbated further by the fact that her introductory scene comes right before that of the Marshal, a fantastic piece of expositional dialogue that, in what has to be a 5-minute single take, lays out everything we need to know about the Marshal’s past and worldview. To his credit, Ethan Hawke also does the best he can, imbuing Paul with a touch of PTSD that seems like he could break down at any minute. The acknowledgement of past wounds, even if they’re wounds that are recalled through a horrendously stylistically incongruous dream sequence, is a subtle touch of vulnerability typically ignored by most actors in lieu of emotional numbness. Hawke, however, brings a different dimension.
The problem is, it has to be Hawke that brings that dimension because what West brings is either tired or confusing. The third act shootout (did I mention this was a Western?) finds one of the main characters literally caught in the middle of two others and what could be a brief, solemn duel signaling the depths to which two characters have sunk instead turns into an over the top, extended sequence of exploding squibs that is too funny to be solemn, but not funny enough to be satirical. Even if it were the latter, its tone would be out of place in a film that can never really figure out from the very beginning what kind of tone it wants to set. It’d be one thing if In the Valley of Violence was an ambitious misstep but, with West at the helm, it comes across as more of a confused stumble.