The Western. Once a staple of Hollywood, the genre has fallen on decades of hard times. It seems that of all the films to make, the western is just one that can’t get a fair shake. Some have tried in the past few years, most recently with the remake of The Magnificent Seven, but none have really done that great of a job of capturing what made the western so special. This might have to do with the fact that many of the movies we love that we think of as classics were not traditional westerns.
A number of sub-genres sprouted before the western fad was over. These films were never really considered “real” westerns in the eyes of enthusiasts. Spaghetti Westerns like The Good, The Bad and The Ugly were considered too violent. Comedies like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were considered a betrayal with its use of musical montages. But in the eyes of some fans, these are best Westerns around. This brings us to a new movie from writer/director Ti West that combines both the action and method of a Spaghetti Western with the timing of a comedy which played at the Toronto After Dark Film Festival last evening: In A Valley of Violence.
In a Valley of Violence stars Ethan Hawke as a stranger passing through a dried up mining town on his way to Mexico. All he has with him is his horse, Lady, his dog, Abby, and the clothes and guns he has on his person. He doesn’t want any trouble but as the story goes, trouble finds him. A misunderstanding in a local saloon leads to a fight with the local deputy. After being embarrassed by the stranger, the deputy wants to make an example of him. He ends up crossing a line too far for the stranger and becomes the focus of his vengeance. The results are bloody to say the least.
Some reviewers are referring to this movie as “John Wick in the old west” and that’s true as the story has similar motivations…..but there’s a bit more going on here. The set up is reminiscent of a Sergio Leone film. The characters, story pacing, even the score pay tribute to Leone’s style. Ethan Hawke is an updated version of the Man with No Name. He’s gritty, doesn’t talk much and lives his life on the outside of society. The only time he ever shows any humanity is when conversing with his dog, Abby. The relationship harkens back to cowboy films gone by where the protagonist has a deep connection with an animal. (Most times, it would be a horse but a dog works too.) The villains of the piece are such because the hero is a lesser of evils. There are no good guys in this story and the end of the tale is not so much about winning as it is leaving a trail of bodies behind.
The interesting turn of events that makes this film not just a straight up tribute to the Spaghetti Western is the almost comic turn it takes in the third act. The film’s climax shootout in the town is filled with some uncharacteristic dialogue that almost feels meta in it’s execution. As the Marshal of the town and the stranger are engaged in combat, they exchange words that sound more like an Abbott and Costello routine than banter during a firefight. This dialogue almost comes off as a dissection of the Western and its tropes. We also get a couple of character moments involving the deputies that are surprisingly placed but still effective. It’s almost as if the film shifts from tribute to send up for the final scenes. This shift in storytelling somehow works as the actors roll with the punches and adjust to the material.
The performances in the film are what truly make the movie. Ethan Hawke is a believable protagonist. The more we learn about him during the film, the harder it is to like him. But somehow, the viewer will find themselves rooting for him in the end. Taissa Farmiga is an excitable addition to the film as Mary Anne, a woman who takes a liking to the stranger when he shows up at her hotel. She is delightful in her delivery and appears to be the only person left in town who actually has “big dreams”. Her interactions with Hawke make for some entertaining comedy at parts and strong emotional moments at others. John Travolta gives one his best performances in years as a clueless Marshall trying to clean up after his son, Gilly, played by James Ransone. Ransone is also enjoyable as the “chicken-shit heel” of the piece. You want to see this kid get his just desserts. There’s also a great cameo by Burn Gorman as a drunken traveling priest. These enjoyable character turns make up for the movie’s visible lack of budget.
While the film is a lot of fun, moving at a strong and steady pace, one can’t help but notice the shoe-string budget that brings it together. Ti West does his best to hide the lack of extras by setting the story in a near abandoned town where only the lowest of the low and those who cannot afford to move on have stayed in residence. But with the lack of extras and the cheapness of the old west sets used, it’s easy to tell that there was no money involved in this picture. Thankfully, it’s only a few moments in the film when it’s truly noticeable. West does a great job of always providing action or character moments to distract you from the low production value most of the time.
If you’re a fan of Spaghetti Westerns or you just like a revenge tale (and you don’t mind seeing a dog get killed which while not graphic, is still pretty brutal), I would recommend In A Valley of Violence. It’s fun, action packed and pretty fuckin’ funny.
If you’re gonna geek out, GEEK HARD!