In a Valley of Violence

In a Valley of Violence ★★★★

I'm a huge fan of Ti West's work. Even one of his weaker efforts, such as THE SACRAMENT, bears the mark of a superior creative force. While that film was hindered by its found footage aesthetic, IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE is able to utilize the full scope of his considerable formal chops once again and it's a welcome return. By venturing into the Western genre, he is able to both indulge in the tropes of the past while slyly subverting them in ways that support audience participation. The elements are familiar, but the telling is all West. The slow burn narrative here is less in favor of plot than it is on mood and character. He takes his time setting up the relationships before setting them aflame in a whirlwind of almost Biblical violence. Everyone here does not come off clean. Sin is rampant and must be cleansed by any means necessary. The sins of the past make way for the sins of the future. Ethan Hawke's mysterious drifter Paul is trying to escape his past and embrace his better nature with his dog Abby, who steals every scene with charisma and a penchant for human behavior. This doesn't last long of course, a blowhard named Gilly tries to exert his dominance over Paul, but gets a lesson in short lived humility when Paul knock him down with one punch. You see, Gilly thinks he is a man of violence because that is what is expected in this male fantasy, but he has never really been exposed to the real impact of violence as those who have been immersed and molded by it. This leads to some darkly comedic moments later in the picture due to this dichotomy. John Travolta also shows up as Gilly's father, who happens to be the Marshal of the town of Denton where this all takes place. This is Travolta working at peak power. Torn between two sides, Travolta sells both the empathy his character has for Paul and his attempt to escape his violent past and the familial love his character has for his son, even when his son's posturing always seems to get in the way. Naturally, this leads to Gilly wanting to get revenge for being made a fool of by Paul, which in turn leads to a brutal showdown among the parties that include Gilly's fiancé and her sister. The tension and escalation of these scenes are classic West, who believes the build up as most important, so that we actually care and anticipate the violence, which makes it have a stronger impact in the end. When someone gets killed, we know their character's personalities like the back of our hand. This makes all the difference when you consider the barrage of mindless destruction we see in Hollywood cinema often. Other merits of this picture include the expansive cinematography, which is elegant in movement and rich with texture, the catchy, menacing, and totally badass score by Jeff Grace, and the lean and mean editing courtesy of West. Like West's best work, it succeeds precisely because it never bogs down in pointless, mechanical pandering. It has a heart, a rhythm, and a love for its characters that just happens to be influenced by movies of the past. And as we all know, the past never stays hidden for long.

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