In a Valley of Violence
Directed by Ti West
Released October 21, 2016
The western is a genre defined by violence. The climactic scene of any great western involves a fateful shootout in which the hero must defend his town or way of life from an enemy who threatens that. Even if the hero espouses nonviolence and attempts to resolve the situation diplomatically, inevitably guns come into play. A valley of violence is just the kind of place that should be found in a western, and Ti West’s involving, creative take on the classic story of a good man riding into town and being forced to clean up the mess that disguises itself as law and order has a most fitting title.
Paul (Ethan Hawke) is first introduced with his loyal dog as he stops to help a destitute preacher eager for aid in the middle of the desert, and, seeing his attempts at deception, robs him of his weapon and his supplies, warning him that they should not cross paths again. The drifter and his dog wander into the town of Denton, and it takes man of few words Paul little time to clash with Gilly (James Ransone), who gets away with just about anything on account of his father being the sheriff (John Travolta). After one of the town’s innkeepers, Mary-Anne (Taissa Farmiga), whose sister and fellow innkeeper Ellen (Karen Gillan) finds herself romantically tethered to Gilly, takes a liking to Paul, he realizes that this brief stopover in Denton will be far more permanent and impactful than he had originally planned.
This film is in many ways a conventional western, but West’s take on it is also highly satirical and funny. Violence comes to Paul without him trying to attract it, and the bad guys are almost asking to be taken out as they walk all over their town and the people in it. Mary-Anne personifies goodness even more than Paul, and Ellen represents an in-between based mainly on her poor outlook on the world. Travolta’s sheriff knows how he likes to keep his town, and an unruly son who won’t listen to anyone is, in his mind, far better than a reckless random citizen or visitor who doesn’t play by the rules.
Hawke, who scored an Oscar nomination for “Boyhood” and was at serious risk of just playing the same part over and over again, finds a fabulous role in Paul, painting him as a carefree cowboy, just seeking to pass through with his own signature style. Farmiga and Gillan are both terrific, and Ransone has a superb frenetic energy that makes him just the right level of absurd. Travolta offers a detached take on the sheriff, just trying to get by without any ruckus. This entertaining, enthralling western spins a standard tale into something far more enticing with witty dialogue, strong cinematography and framing, and excellent use of a talented and capable cast.