In a Valley of Violence—Ethan Hawke, John Travolta, Taissa Formiga, James Ransone, Karen Gillan (2016; Dir: Ti West)
Los Angeles Times writer Michael Rechtshaffen refers to this as part of the “The Great Western Revival of 2016.” In fact, this slender renaissance in the western film genre began the previous year, in 2015, with such entries as Slow West, The Salvation and Bone Tomahawk, not to mention The Revenant and The Hateful Eight. (See our post on Current Westerns for a more complete list.) And now Ethan Hawke appears in two westerns released within a month—the remake of The Magnificent Seven and this smaller effort.
Writer-director-producer Ti West is more associated with horror/supernatural films than he is with westerns, but this is a respectable first effort in the genre. Referred to by some as an “homage” to the western, it does feel like a collection of pieces from other westerns, with an overlay of spaghetti western sensibility.
A lone rider (Ethan Hawke) heading for Mexico encounters a priest going to the town of Denton in the next valley. Sidelined by a lame mule, the priest attempts to steal the rider’s horse but is foiled by the rider’s small dog, Abbie. The rider heads for Denton, where he drinks water in a bar while waiting for the local store to re-open. The townspeople are jittery and one refers to the place as “a valley of violence.” A local loudmouth named Gilly (James Ransone) picks on the rider’s dog, and we know what that will precipitate. Rather than shoot it out with Gilly, the rider busts his nose.
The one-legged town marshal (John Travolta) is the ultimate enforcer, Gilly’s father and the cause of the jitters in town. He is also under no illusions about Gilly’s faults and bullying. He deduces that the rider has a cavalry background and is perhaps a deserter, but they come to an agreement that the rider will leave town. As the rider camps at night in the hills south of Denton, Gilly and his three hoodlums kill Abbie and throw the rider from a cliff.
However, the rider does not die and makes his way back to Denton, encountering the priest again (he has been thrown out of Denton) and taking his gun and mule. He also re-encounters Mary-Anne (Taissa Farmiga), the younger of two sisters who run the hotel in town. Mary-Anne is seventeen, has been abandoned by her husband, and is desperate to get out of Denton. The rider tells her his name is Paul, but he declines to take her with him. She helps him anyway.
As Paul re-enters Denton, he gives the marshal a chance to stay out of the confrontation, which, of course, he can’t take. One by one, Gilly’s three henchmen are disposed of, with Paul and the marshal continuing their one-sided dialogue. Unable to stand it any longer, Gilly rushes to the street, facing Paul with the now-unarmed marshal between them (a set-up reminiscent of the great Leone). Gilly precipitates an extended exchange of gunfire, with the marshal seeming to take the brunt of it from both sides. Both Paul and Gilly are hit in the leg. As Paul takes refuge in the livery stable, Gilly hunts him down. The final shot is predictable enough that we can see it coming.
There are decent performances here: Ethan Hawke as the traumatized rider Paul does well. His version of The Mysterious Stranger is not so superhuman as Clint Eastwood’s. However, we don’t know enough about him to engage fully. His character is underdeveloped (the problem seems to be in the script), but interesting enough. Taissa Farmiga, as the younger and more interesting of the hotel-keeping sisters, is quite plain but good. John Travolta as a quasi-villain is not quite as over-the-top as some of his performances have been in recent years, and he’s more interesting because of that. John Ransone as Gilly has a more modern feel to him, but the lack of concern for the intrusion modern elements in a 19th-century story is one of the reasons for a spaghetti western feel. There are several very talkative characters here. Paul talks, but mainly to his dog; he’s clearly not good with people. Mary-Anne and Gilly talk all the time, and the marshal seems fond of hearing himself as well. The larcenous priest (Burn Gorman) talks a lot, too.
Why does this movie seem put together from elements of other westerns? The opening scene, in which the priest attempts to rob a lone rider, reminds us of a similar opening scene in The Shootist. The peaceable but possibly dangerous stranger harassed while drinking in a saloon is a pretty common trope (see Silverado, The Gunfighter and many others). Killing a man’s dog to demonstrate the bad guy’s evil nature and provoke revenge has been used a fair amount (see Hondo and Big Jake, for example). For a man thrown over a cliff who does not die, see The Last Wagon. In fact, the protagonist who is all but killed and comes back to exact revenge is a staple of Clint Eastwood’s films, especially A Fistful of Dollars and Hang ‘Em High. The one-against-several showdown moving through a town has also been used many times since High Noon, most recently, for example, in The Salvation in 2015. The use of a vengeful woman in the final gunfight, thrown in at the climactic second, is becoming another cliché (most recently, see The Salvation and the remake of The Magnificent Seven). Now you can feel it coming.
The film was shot near Santa Fe, New Mexico, in color at 104 minutes. The excellent Morricone-esque score is by Jeff Grace. Rated R for violence and language.