United States, 2016. Directed by Ti West. Starting Ethan Hawke, John Travolta, Taissa Farmiga, James Ransone, Karen Gillan. 104 minutes. ★★★
As cinematic genres, the modern horror film and the Western are intertwined. The generation of horror auteurs born between, say, 1935 and 1950 came of age in an era when Hollywood churned out oaters a dozen at a time. A great many of the films young Johnny Carpenter would have seen in his youth were horse operas, and that’s why so many entries in his filmography—Assault on Precinct 13, Escape from New York, Vampires—make more sense if you consider them as Westerns. And now that “throwback horror” is a thing, Carpenter and his contemporaries having influenced a younger generation of genre filmmakers, the news that professional ’70s/’80s pasticheur Ti West has thrown his hat into the Western ring should not surprise us.
Indeed, with In a Valley of Violence West delivers a classic-formula Western of the kind Sergio Leone used to make, complete with a strong streak of gallows humor (the film almost qualifies as a comedy), morally-ambiguous protagonists, and expansive wide shots of desert wasteland. Even the opening titles crib from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, and the score—courtesy Jeff Grace, West’s standard musical collaborator—puts in an admirable impersonation of Ennio Morricone.
The film’s plot progresses slowly and simply, as a man-with-no-name (actually he does have a name, but it’s not even mentioned until at least thirty minutes in, so we’ll just call him Ethan Hawke) arrives in Denton, known to the few locals as the Valley of Violence, a dying town of maybe a dozen residents, most of them corrupt bullies whom Hawke runs afoul of almost immediately. Valley of Violence possesses a lack of plot sophistication and thematic depth that won’t surprise those familiar with West. The characters get more definition than the story, but the genre’s icons and tropes quite obviously guide West’s hand, and he relies on the ensemble—which includes John Travolta and James Ransone as the primary antagonists, along with Taissa Farmiga (American Horror Story), Karen Gillan (Doctor Who), Burn Gorman (Pacific Rim), and the always reliable Larry Fessenden (please tell me I don’t need to explain Larry Fessenden to you)—to perform most of the heavy lifting.
This isn’t necessarily a strike against the film; even in his best work, such as The House of the Devil, West has always emphasized style over substance. But he brings something of a half-baked modern sensibility t0 the film; this doesn’t always detract, and indeed many of the funniest and most memorable moments come from it. But I can’t shake the feeling that the film would have felt more even had West committed to that sensibility more fully. He never quite reconciles the film’s nominal theme, the idea that violence begets nothing but more violence, with the vicarious thrill of watching Hawke hunt down and kill the bad guys. And while the sexual tension between Hawke (age 45 in real life) and Farmiga (22, and playing a 16-year-old to boot) might not have raised an eyebrow in the real Old West, it’s massively creepy by modern standards. It’s nice that West makes a token comment about that, but it would have been nicer if that comment wasn’t merely token.
Despite my criticisms, I thoroughly enjoyed In a Valley of Violence. I wouldn’t consider it an acceptable substitute for The Hateful Eight or even Bone Tomahawk, but as an entertaining genre exercise it squarely hits its target.