Movie review: In a Valley of Violence

Horror movie director crosses over into the world of Westerns

Writer/director Ti West, independent horror icon behind modern classics like “The Innkeepers” and “The House of the Devil,” takes his genre-expertise to the Old West in “In a Valley of Violence,” a tight, superbly entertaining, b-movie throwback to the westerns of yesteryear — though it can’t quite match the visual aptitude of West’s spookier efforts.

Unlike the other western nods of recent years, most notably Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight” and “Django Unchained,” “In a Valley of Violence” isn’t exactly the sprawling picture you might expect. More akin to the overhyped and overrated, “Bone Tomahawk,” West — who’s made a name for himself with his impeccably crafted, intimately staged horror films that showcase his comfort with tiny productions and even tinier casts — mixes a small dose of his horror sensibilities with western genre tropes, most effectively with its score by Jeff Grace — an atmospheric throwback to spaghetti westerns that still rings true with West’s genre roots.

But when it comes down to it, West borrows most from “John Wick,” a busier, faster moving shoot-em-up, by emotionally engaging us with the murder of our main character’s sole companion — his dog. Almost no narrative device can more easily aquire the sympathy of its audience. It’s a move that immediately gets the audience on its hero’s side.

Before that, and the films spectacularly crafted title sequence that does great service to its western inspirations, we meet Paul (Ethan Hawke), a Civil War veteran, and his dog, Abbie, who we learn was mysteriously acquired in some kind mysterious attack of our hero following the war. When they encounter an alcoholic priest (Burn Gorman) sidelined due to his injured donkey, Paul offers to help before the priest instead tries to rob him at gunpoint. The priest tells Paul about a small town over the hill, Denton. He refers to this place as “the valley of violence,” a place that lacks remorse for its travelers, and one that the he plans to heal with the word of God. Abbie quickly rises to the occasion on the command of Paul’s whistle and immediately subdues the priests threat.

Paul and Abbie visit Denton to gather supplies and run into the sort of unexpected trouble described by the priest. The sheriff’s son, Gilly (James Ransone) challenges our drifter to a fight in the streets after his aggressive conversational tactics are ignored in a local tavern. Paul continues to ignore the challenge until Gilly makes a major mistake — he threatens Abbie. And he gets punched, and knocked out, for it.

After a word with the town sheriff, Marshall (John Travolta) a sad, effective sheriff caught between being just and protecting his awful son, Paul leaves town with no further trouble.  That night, Gilly and his tiny mob get the worst kind of revenge for being embarrassed and murder Abbie right in front of him.

We subtly and ambiguously learn that our hero is plagued by the horrors of war he once experienced and the family he abandoned as a result of it, only hinted at, before returning to get revenge for the murder of his dog. From that moment on, “In a Valley of Violence” turns into the kind of revenge picture we’ve waited for all along, as Hawke’s Paul returns to town with the goal of taking out everyone involved, and anyone who stands in his way.

As much fun as “In a Valley of Violence” can be, it’s plagued by its smallness, and the promises setup by its first scene never truly come to fruition. There’s no awareness of its town residents, who are never really seen, and the effect the towns troublemakers and sheriff have on them is nonexistant.

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