IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE: Ti West’s Playful Take On The Western

While 2015 could be considered a year where Westerns were making a comeback, with films such as Slow West, Bone Tomahawk, and The Hateful Eight, 2016 has been sorely lacking thus far. Films that could have been a resounding success, such as Jane Got a GunThe Duel, or The Magnificent Seven, instead fell flat, containing little to none of that old-West magic that always seems to bring me back to the genre.

For that reason, it’s completely refreshing to see Ti West‘s In a Valley of Violence. The film is a fusion and modernization of old genres, with a specific emphasis on the Spaghetti Western, and though not without its own set of flaws, it is mostly an entertaining ride.

Familiarity of Western tropes

In a Valley of Violence is a story we’ve all heard before in the Western genre: a lone man with a mysterious past comes into a desolate, unhinged old West town, and through a series of mishaps, unwittingly gets pitted against a gang of outlaws. An unusual twist from the outset, though, is that Paul (played by Ethan Hawke), is also accompanied by a loyal pooch, a companion that is deceivingly cute, yet proves himself to be very accommodating as his right-hand man.

Ti West, who before this was mostly known for his horror films (The Sacrament, The Innkeepers), here has created a delightful homage to the sub-genre of Spaghetti Westerns. The ones that will immediately come to mind are those made by Sergio Leone, such as A Fistful of Dollars, or even some Clint Eastwood-directed Westerns, such as High Plains Drifter (both are films which West has stated are amongst his favorites in the genre).

Similar elements to these films include the morally ambiguous antihero, the tense, non-dialogue buildups to impending gunfights, and the use of unusual sounds as part of the score, such as whistling, stomping, and gunshots, in a way clearly reminiscent of Ennio Morricone‘s Western scores.

IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE: Ti West's Subversive Take On The Western
source: Focus World

The way that West‘s film distinguishes itself, however, is by choosing to overuse dialogue at some points as opposed to lingering in silence. Leone would often prefer to use natural sounds in his films, such as in the opening scenes of Once Upon a Time in the West, which contains nearly eight minutes without a line of dialogue, building tension through the sound of a waterwheel and other noises of a quiet old West town.

A clear example that West‘s film will not follow suit is when Hawke‘s character, while alone, talks to his dog, filling him in as to his current thoughts and impending actions. While interacting with others, Paul sometimes breaks from his brooding, silent persona, extending into long-winded monologues. It is an aspect that is sometimes frustrating, since Westerns are often more compelling when they are allowed to breathe. Yet, I can’t entirely fault West at the same time.

In a Valley of Violence is very much a lighter-fare Western, with the emphasis being that West likely didn’t set out to make an exact copy of the Spaghetti or classic genres, and instead intended to make a subversion of them, albeit with a more playful tone. This can be seen in some scenes, when characters who were previously attempting to kill one another instead engage in seemingly pleasant conversations, and in the process slice through the tension with their banter. The use of bait and switch is a common practice in West‘s films, and you have to admire his commitment to the tone, even if the film sometimes becomes a bit too hokey to be taken entirely seriously.

Performances and Highlights

The one potential scepticism I had before seeing In a Valley of Violence was the casting of Ethan Hawke in the main role. Though I respect him as an actor, he felt out of place in the Western remake The Magnificent Seven, in a role where he didn’t appear to alter his accent or mannerisms to fit the part. Here, though, Hawke surprisingly delivers. Though he occasionally over-presents his lines, he is mostly an embodiment of the strong, silent archetype so often seen in Westerns. The rightful revenge can be seen in his eyes, and helps to justify some of the more brutal acts that the character subsequently takes.

The character, though hard-edged, is also one that generates sympathy due to his calming nature. One of the more entertaining scenes of the film has Paul sitting in a bathtub, while stuck in the same room as a young girl named Mary-Anne (a delightfully charming Taissa Farmiga), whose mile-a-minute dialogue is in stark contrast to Paul’s overwhelming silence. His helpless looks and one-word responses to her many questions leads to many earned laughs.

IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE: Ti West's Subversive Take On The Western
source: Focus World

Other surprises here are John Travolta, who thankfully takes West‘s lighthearted tone to heart, choosing to play the character, one of the film’s villains, with sensitivity as opposed to a maniacal demeanor as he easily could have. James Ransone, though, unfortunately does just that, with tics and overemphasized gestures that easily make him into a one-note, borderline cartoonish villain.

The Verdict

Overall, Ti West‘s In a Valley of Violence is a lively, energetic Western, refreshing in a year that has been one disappointment after another. It may, at times, appear too jumpy with its tone, often going from vicious to silly at the drop of a dime, yet the ability to keep you on your toes is also one of the aspects that make the film stand out.

Ti West may be best known in the indie horror circuit, yet with In a Valley of Violence he has proven that he has additional genres up his sleeve, which makes me even more hopeful for whatever he chooses to tackle next.

What do you think of In a Valley of Violence? How does it rank with Ti West’s films overall?

In a Valley of Violence is now available through VOD. 

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