There are many ways to hurt a man. You can physically assault him, humiliate him, and even steal that which he holds dear. One thing you never do though is mess with a man’s dog. This is a lesson that the folks of Denton, a town so cold-blooded it has earned the nickname “the valley of violence,” are forced to learn the hard way when a mysterious drifter, Paul (Ethan Hawke), and his dog Abby stroll into town.
Headed to New Mexico, and haunted by his past, Paul reluctantly decides to take a risk and cut through Denton. Not only can he acquire supplies there, but it will also shave some time off of his journey. All he needs to do is keep his head down and stay out of trouble for a few hours. Despite his best intensions, Paul attracts the unwanted attention of Gilly (James Ransone), a local loudmouth itching to pick a fight. After being prodded into an altercation, which results in Gilly getting knocked out, Paul quickly realizes that his troubles are only just beginning.
Discovering that Gilly is not only the deputy of the down, but also the son of The Marshall (John Travolta), who governs the town with an iron fist, Paul’s New Mexico plans take a harsh detour when Gilly refuses to let bygones be bygones.
Playing like the western kin of recent revenge films like John Wick, In a Valley of Violence, Ti West’s first non-horror film foray, since 2007’s Trigger Man, effectively shows his growth and range as director. Channeling the works of Sergio Leone, West crafts an intimate western whose strut is as large as the plains that surround Denton. While much of the fun comes from watching Hawke even the score, In a Valley of Violence does attempt to offer some depth by touching on the effects of war on Paul. Though these themes could have been fleshed out much further, it adds an interesting layer to the film.
Aside from occasionally being upstaged by his charming canine co-star, Hawke delivers a strong performance as Paul, a man so consumed by the horrors of his past that he cannot even fathom the notion of a potential future. This is especially true when it is staring him in the face in the form of the lovely Mary Ann (Taissa Farmiga). Travolta is also good as the conflicted Marshall who cannot condone his son’s actions, but also refuses to sit back and watch him get killed. Considering the star power at play, it is a testament to Ransone’s abilities, that he nearly steals the film as the villainous Gilly. Similar to his work on The Wire, Ransone has that uncanny ability to embody characters who we both want to slap and subsequently fear at the same time.
Injecting a surprising amount of humour into the film, West’s version of the Wild West may not offer too many new ideas to the genre, but it is a crowd-pleaser that successfully draws out the tension in an entertaining way. More importantly though, the film confirms that Ti West is a director who is both capable and ready to handle bigger and more diverse films.