In A Valley of ViolenceReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 07/19/16 16:34:29
SCREENED AT THE 2016 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: At some point in Ti West's new film, I wondered if this was an early sign that Ethan Hawke was going to follow the Kevin Costner aging curve, getting lean and squinty and without time for young people's foolishness even if he doesn't exactly look old. That may yet happen, but for the time being, Hawke doesn't really seem like he should be playing the parts that Costner and Clint Eastwood aged into yet, and that's part of what makes "In a Valley of Violence" kind of an off-kilter kick rather than another dreary, too-somber take on the western.He plays Paul, who describes himself as a killer but not a thief but recognizes that this doesn't really represent any sort of moral high ground, and is headed to Mexico with his dog Abby. He'd like to avoid other people if he could, but he needs some water and supplies, with tapped-out mining town Denton the best place for it. Once he gets there, the usual things happen - hothead Gilly (James Ransone) picks a fight; Mary Anne (Taissa Farmiga), the sweet girl behind the desk at the hotel, takes a shine to him and Abby - and it naturally leads to the Marshall Martin (John Travolta) suggesting Paul leave town. He does, continues to Mexico, and the movie ends, an enjoyable fifteen minutes long.
At least, that's what would happen if characters in westerns knew when to let things lie, which is not the case here. No, things go pretty much as expected, and to a certain extent, people can see it coming: John Travolta's marshal is described as the sort of corrupt tyrant that often has that job in these movies, but he's smart enough to know where this sort of thing goes and try to put a stop to it. It's initially not quite enough to feel like a parody or a deconstruction, but this sort of sensible behavior at the start gives West openings that he can use to poke at westerns, movies, and genre fiction in general. West loves this stuff and really isn't interested in taking it apart and putting it back together, but if he can have a laugh at characters having derogatory nicknames or how dramatic moments interrupt the action, or maybe just remind the viewers that age differences in prior centuries would make most of them uncomfortable, he will, just so long as he's pushing these things aside and not saying they make things ridiculous. It's the best kind of winking at the audience because it's made up of reactions that make sense even without a fourth wall to break.
West gives this stuff to a cast that fits their parts near-perfectly but can do little things to surprise. Hawke, for instance, spends a lot of time in his comfort zone - chatty, kind of self-doubting, kind of surprising himself when sharp words come out - and it's certainly a different look even before you consider that most of the talking is to his dog. He still plays a very believable outlaw without having to shift into a different persona; the intense man seeking revenge still looks like he'd much rather not be in a fight. John Travolta gives Martin the measured, theatrical diction and frustration at less-than-bright subordinates as any of his villains, but also gets to play the only sensible person in town, and it's a fun combination. James Ransone has the character that sticks closest to the template, but he plays it well.
The second tier of characters is maybe even better - Larry Fessenden turns in another one of the scene-stealing performances that makes me wonder why acting is often considered the thing he does as a lark between directing jobs, and the other guys in Gilly's posse (Tommy Nohilly as "Tubby" and Toby Huss as the sensible Harris) are great fits as well. Taissa Farmiga is an instant delight as the responsible woman whose husband has run off who is also pretty much a teenager, and Karen Gillan does more than one might notice at first glance as her bitchy, self-centered older sister, making sure that we see that the other layer that makes her potentially a decent person may be thin and buried deep, but it is there, when the time comes.
Oh, and Jumpy may just be the best movie dog since Uggy in The Artist.
They're thrown into the middle of a western written, directed, and edited by someone who is mostly known for horror, but that becomes a real asset in an unexpected way - he lavishes the same sort of love on his shoot-outs and fistfights that he would on a slasher's kill, wanting to surprise the audience by showing something it either hasn't seen or didn't expect. He speeds up to pile excitement on when a lot of other folks trying their hand at this genre would slow down for the big, iconic shot that seems more concerned with the paying tribute to the idea of the western rather than making a given one entertaining. Ignoring that impulse also means that he makes sure most of the characters are memorable individuals rather than just the types.West does all that without ever losing track of how this is all happening not because the type of story says it has to, but because Paul has gone through some nasty stuff and his battering is something to be taken seriously. "In a Valley of Violence" may not have the obvious serious concerns of other recent westerns, but it's right up there with them in presenting the sort of story that made them popular in the first place.
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