If you consider the diverse range in tone and distinction of recent revisionist Westerns like Alejandro Iñárritu’s The Revenant (2015), Quentin Tarantino’s dyad The Hateful Eight (2015), and Django Unchained (2012), the artful horror hybrid of S. Craig Zahler’s Bone Tomahawk (2015) and Kelly Reichardt’s first-rate feminist horse opera Meek’s Cutoff (2010), just to name a few contemporary standouts, it would seem that this most traditional of American genres is enjoying something of a resurgence.
Enter Ti West (The House of the Devil)––not only does he have the perfect name for a director of Westerns, but West has, since his impressive debut The Roost (2005), firmly established himself as modern horror master. And so his latest picture, In a Valley of Violence, is a departure for West, though still a genre picture, who told the excited VIFF crowd before it’s premiere that he just “wanted to make a traditional revenge Western.”
In a Valley of Violence begins like many oaters we’ve seen in the past and the archetypal characters that therein show all the hallmarks of cowboy picture platitudes; Paul (Ethan Hawke) is a self-effacing drifter who appears more like a peacenik than the dangerous army deserter we suspect him to be; Gilly (James Ransone) is a murderous intimidator; Mary-Anne (Tessa Farmiga) is a virginal ingenue; Marshal Clyde Martin (John Travolta) is the conflicted reprobate law man; and so on. But once West’s story gains speed these stock characters begin to be affected in new, astonishing, and often unpredictable ways.
Westl––who also wrote and edited the film––takes pains to make this Western more than a stylish throwback. There’s generous doses of dark humor, a strong and impressive cast (“my dream cast,” West enthuses), and an idiosyncratic charisma that makes the film fascinating and a lot of fun.
It’s a talky picture and some of the well-written and quirky dialogue does recall Tarantino––a verbose and unstable Travolta really drives this idea home––and a certain plot advancement did have me scribbling in my notepad the words “John Wick in the Wild West” but even that suggestion is subverted for other speculations (also, as West maintains, this film was in the can before Wick hit theaters).
As entertaining and satisfying as In a Valley of Violence is, it also makes some astute observations on fantasy violence versus real-life violence and contains a climactic shootout that’s original, inventive, well-choreographed, and suitably fist-pumping.
I’ve left the best aspect of the film for last and that’s Paul’s loyal companion, his adorable and discerning canine Abbie, played by Jumpy the dog. Not only does Abbie steal every scene she’s in, her expressive face and wide-range of impressive maneuver, many done in impressive long takes, all but steals the show. West suggested to the attentive VIFF crowd to YouTube Jumpy the dog and you’d be horn swallowed not to.
Taste of Cinema Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Author Bio: Shane Scott-Travis is a film critic, screenwriter, comic book author/illustrator and cineaste. Currently residing in Vancouver, Canada, Shane can often be found at the cinema, the dog park, or off in a corner someplace, paraphrasing Groucho Marx. Follow Shane on Twitter @ShaneScottravis.