Keep your finger on the trigger.
As someone who counts writer/director Ti West among my very favorite voices in this golden age of indie horror in which we are now living, I was intrigued and excited to learn that he would be branching out and directing a western (a Ti Western!). Getting to see his latest, the western In a Valley of Violence, on the big screen as part of a festival in 2016 was a highlight of my moviegoing year, as this is a movie that deserves to be seen on the big screen. Unfortunately, it basically came and went when it was released several months later, getting a limited theatrical run but mostly seen on digital platforms and VOD. The movie deserved better. Hopefully audiences are able to find it now that it’s available on Blu-ray courtesy of Universal.
Ethan Hawke plays Paul, a drifter who makes his way into the desolate town of Denton and immediately runs afoul of a short-tempered deputy (James Ransone, Tangerine). The deputy’s father, town marshal Clyde Martin (John Travolta), orders Paul to leave town and never return, which he does. Unfortunately, he’s followed by Deputy Gilly and his three goons, who have clearly never seen John Wick and don’t know better than to mess with a man’s dog. With that, the stage is set for a bloody battle of revenge.
For its first 30 to 45 minutes, In a Valley of Violence feels a lot like a contemporary spin on a spaghetti western — it has the wide open vistas, the “Man with No Name” surrogate character, the totally inspired opening credits. It’s all fun and entertaining, but doesn’t quite feel as unique or idiosyncratic as we’ve come to expect from Ti West, who is very good at putting his own stamp on familiar genre tropes as they pertain to horror. At a certain point, though, the film shifts and what West is attempting to do with the movie comes into focus. This is a movie that has to establish its archetypes before it starts to flip them on their heads and take us by surprise. Ethan Hawke’s drifter isn’t the conventional western hero; he’s as much a coward and consumed by petty revenge as he is a Will Kane type who stands up for what’s right. John Travolta — better here than he has been in almost anything since the 1990s — isn’t the typical mustache-twirling despot of an old western town. He’s smart and he knows the score. He may be a bastard, but he’s more or less right about everything he says and tries to do in the movie. As West himself explained during the post-festival screening Q&A, In a Valley of Violence is a movie about a bunch of guys trying to kill each other but who are all really bad at it. That kind of original spin is exactly what I want from a Ti Western.
It’s a difficult thing the movie does, as it has to deliver the elements we want from the genre — the gorgeous ‘Scope photography, the gunfights, the horses and hats — while tweaking many of the elements so as to stand apart from every other western. West doesn’t aim for realism (he claims to have sworn that off for the time being after his 2013 horror movie The Sacrament), nor is he interested in honoring the conventions to the letter the way something more mainstream like the 2016 remake of The Magnificent Seven did (ironically, a western released within a few weeks of this one, also starring Ethan Hawke, to much great fanfare and box office success). You really have to be a student of either the western or of Ti West to fully embrace how quirky and smart the movie is, and even when the pacing dips for a bit or the story starts to repeat itself, it’s never less than entertaining in the way that it both lives up to and deconstructs the genre.
Universal’s Blu-ray of In a Valley of Violence presents the 2.40:1-framed film in full 1080p HD and generally looks good, though with some inconsistencies. West shot the movie on 35mm and it looks it; the HD transfer keeps the grain structure intact and is bright and clean, but colors are a bit washed out (some by design, some not) and is softer than it should be at times. It’s a good transfer, but it should be a great one for a movie like this. The lossless 5.1 audio track is better, offering clear dialogue and a fun range of dynamic sound effects balanced well with Jeff Grace’s rousing, Morricone-influenced score. Where the disc totally disappoints is in the bonus features department, offering just one EPK-style making-of featurette that runs a whopping two minutes. It’s almost more insulting than if they hadn’t included any supplements at all. No commentary from West, no deleted scenes, nothing. A digital copy is also included.
One of 2016’s most underrated efforts, In a Valley of Violence is a small, character-based western that deserves the attention of genre fans. Not only does it include John Travolta’s best performance in decades, but also gives one of the most talented and original filmmakers of his generation the chance to flex a new set of muscles. I’m down to watch Ti West step into as many different genres as he wants, but I’d also be happy to see him make five or six more Ti Westerns.