Trace Thurman’s review published on Letterboxd:
Ti West returns to us after a two year absence to bring us his new Ti Western (sorry, I couldn’t resist) In a Valley of Violence, a star-studded ensemble piece that eschews all genre elements save for multiple moments of gallows humor. It is a Western in the truest sense of the word, and it’s a damn good one. You might ask: “Trace, why are you covering a Western on a horror site?” The answer is simple: because I want to.
In the film, a mysterious drifter named Paul (Ethan Hawke, Sinister, The Purge) and his dog Abbie (who steals the show in every single one of her scenes) make their way towards Mexico through the barren desert of the old west. Their journey eventually brings them in the forgotten town of Denton, a place now dubbed by locals as a “valley of violence.” The once-popular mining town is nearly abandoned and controlled by a brash group of misfits, chief among them Gilly (James Ransone, Sinister, Sinister 2), the troublemaking son of the town’s Marshal (John Travolta).
When a fight between Paul and Gilly leaves Gilly humiliated in front of the whole town, including his vapid wife Ellen (Karen Gillan, Oculus, Guardians of the Galaxy), the marshal sends Paul on his way. Unfortunately for Paul, Gilly and his posse follow him and commit an act of unspeakable violence (if you’ve seen John Wick you probably know what that act of unspeakable violence is) prompting Paul to head back to Denton and gain his revenge. Also caught in the crossfire is Ellen’s sister Mary-Anne (Taissa Farmiga, American Horror Story, The Final Girls) who tries to see the good in Paul.
The first thing you should know is that I am not a fan of Westerns. My grandfather used to watch them all the time with me when I was a kid and they never rubbed off on me. That being said, I enjoyed the Hell out of In a Valley of Violence. As you can gather by the lengthy plot summary, there are a lot of pawns in play in the film, and Ti West maneuvers them wonderfully.
Performances, as expected, are grand all the way across the board. Hawke’s Paul is a brooding man of few words, but when tragedy strikes his cries for help are soul-shattering. Unfortunately the snippets of backstory provided him don’t allow the audience to connect with the character. Without that connection, there isn’t really an emotional investment with him until his encounter with Gilly and his gang. Travolta is the most charismatic he’s been in years, providing us with a sensible “villain” whom you actually may find yourself siding with at various points during the film. Ransone brings equally endearing qualities to Gilly, though he is the main villain of the film, and a childish one at that. He is equal parts menacing and annoying.
One thing West did a grand job with is that he brings an emotive performance out of Taissa Farmiga, who has frequently been stuck in the role of the glum teenager (even in The Final Girls, she played that same somber character that she always plays). This is not the case with Mary-Anne. She is a plucky, loquacious 16-year-old and Farmiga injects life into all of her scenes. She is given a much more developed character than Gillan, who is unfortunately the only actor really underserved by West’s script. Ellen is a one-dimensional bimbo that is given no moment of depth throughout the duration of the film, and whose primary purpose is to serve as comic relief for the audience to laugh at her dimwitted and superficial sensibilities.
A common complaint of West’s films is that they are all an extremely slow buildup to the final 10 or 15 minutes. While that cannot be said In a Valley of Violence, it does gets off to a sluggish start. After a prologue introducing us to Paul, we are gifted with an animated opening credits sequence set to Jeff Grace’s incredible score. From there it takes about 15-20 minutes for things to pick up. That being said, the film is never boring, and once John Travolta enters the picture at the beginning of the second act it kicks into high gear. The third act consists entirely of Pauls’ rampage on the town, and it’s a total blast.
There is a surprising amount of comedy in In a Valley of Violence. So much so, that one would be forgiven for being a little confused on how to feel in certain situations. West bounces back and forth from drama to comedy so often that the film does occasionally have a jarring effect on the audience. Still, if gallows humor is your thing, you will most likely get a kick out of the majority of the film. In fact, there were several moments that had the audience in stitches. You wouldn’t expect a film of this type to have elements of screwball comedy, but it really is laugh-out-loud hilarious at times. In a Valley of Violence is also the least technically impressive of West’s films. It is shot simply on 35mm film, but this may be a trait of the genre, and not a sign of West’s filmmaking skills.
In a Valley of Violence may not be West’s best film (that honor would still go to The House of the Devil), but it is a noble effort into non-genre territory that is probably his most accessible film to date. Out of all of the films he has made, this is the one that will play the best to mainstream audiences. It’s a ton of fun and has a great sense of humor about itself. Barring some poor character development and a few jarring tonal shifts that undercut the drama, the film is a lot of fun and hilarious to boot.