“I stopped listening to men like you a long time ago”
Ti West‘s western In a Valley of Violence might have been great if it allowed itself to become the serious revenge thriller it sporadically proves. A dark drama able to embrace the weight of its characters’ turmoil appears once you remove Karen Gillan‘s over-the-top dullard in distress theatrics, James Ransone‘s cartoonish villainy, and the pinball piñata that is the penultimate body to fall. Denton, a virtual ghost town run empty by its corrupt Marshall (John Travolta) with a self-proclaimed “unorthodox” style and his loudmouth son (Ransone’s Gilly), is ultimately sizing up against a man with nothing to lose in haunted cavalry deserter Paul (Ethan Hawke). We are watching life or death stakes and a rare sense of honor cultivating intrigue that’s sadly subverted by West’s sense of humor.
This comedic flair is a welcome addition to the writer/director’s horror fare because fear often manifests as laughter in a natural complement to scares and suspense. The way it’s utilized here, however, grinds things to a halt. Right when I thought we were getting down to brass tacks, Gilly and his fiancé Ellen (Gillan) begin fighting with him acting like Archie Bunker and her emitting tiny gasps of incredulous exasperation her brain can’t replace with words of value to the given situation. Whenever we get a sense that Ellen’s younger sister Mary Anne (Taissa Farmiga)—the sole Dentonite with a head on her shoulders—will buckle-up and join Paul’s fight, she devolves into a bubbly fan-girl exuding more hurt frustration in being dismissed than actual anger to respect.
Even Paul’s love for his dog Abby (the wonderful Jumpy as readied by The Artist‘s Auggie’s trainer Omar Von Muller) moves from love, respect, and camaraderie to exaggerated lamentations that John Wick—with a similar plot thread—never did. It’s as though West was unsure of the heavy drama he was injecting into his script and wrongly thought he needed to cut the edge off with broad performances and spaghetti western music turning things vaudevillian at his worst, misguided at best. The real shame comes once we realize how good Hawke, Travolta, Farmiga, and Ransone are when they’re allowed to dig into the roles as three-dimensional characters with motivations. It’s one thing to create a series of follies due to dimwits; it’s another to transform everyone into clowns.
Many fans will beg to differ and say this infusion of laughter positively sets the film apart from others in the genre, but to that I reply, “To each, his/her own.” It completely took me out of the action to where I never could truly come back. To have the mood that’s set with a nicely constructed prologue between Paul and a drunk priest (Burn Gorman) continue with a welcome bit of grandstanding by Ransone and stoicism by Hawke got me ready to enjoy a stripped bare feast of righteous violence. So when the former’s Gilly calls the latter’s Paul out with screams of a public beat-down, I simply shook my head. This methodically paced duel suddenly became an obvious cafeteria brawl initiated by the delusional class jester.
West tried to get me back into it with a memorable exchange between Paul and the perceptively astute Marshall as well as a gorgeous scene of nightmare providing a glimpse into the former’s soul, but it’s never enough. Things continuously fall flat as everyone’s stereotypically stock characteristics rise to the surface. None of the “bad guys” prove redeemable and our “hero” is drawn so self-consciously troubled that we almost stop caring. Hubris seals the fate of Gilly’s sycophants (Toby Huss‘ Harris, Larry Fessenden‘s Roy, and Tommy Nohilly‘s Tubby) while Travolta tries to provide his Marshall some humanity if only we didn’t already know second-hand that his son learned to be a deplorable creature from him. So without any real surprises in the plot, these walking clichés prove dull.
And yet I still had a good time. I wouldn’t believe a better film existed underneath the jokey atmosphere if I didn’t. West appreciates the genre and lovingly plays with its tropes to create something that’s simultaneously homage and of today. Using Gorman’s priest for a chapter marker is a nice touch while Abby the dog performing exaggerated cues provides the smile the rest of the humor cannot. West smartly leaves Paul and Mary Anne’s relationship platonic considering the age difference and finds a way to evoke the tiniest shred of sympathy for the Marshall in accepting Paul as being in the right. Having Hawke descend into an unforgiving rage is also the correct choice if only Gilly didn’t steal the spotlight to introduce farce above the malice.
Tone is everything, though, and its lack of consistency hurts the whole more than its dueling pathways entertain. Having the story move along what could be a high school-set checklist of newcomer with a past, embarrassed bully, conflicted parent, and doting lackeys doesn’t help either. In a Valley of Violence always seems like it’s pretending to be something it’s not by trying to legitimize itself with good actors and proven events despite feeling flimsy enough to break under the weight of a surface sheen it cannot sustain. While West definitely has the skills to create something to be remembered beyond consciously tongue-in-cheek attempts at achieving cult status rather than artistic merit, his drive to have fun wins out. I appreciate that desire, but it’s simply not quite enough.
 Ethan Hawke stars as Paul in IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE a Focus World release. Photo courtesy of Focus World.
 (L to R) John Travolta, Taissa Farmiga and Karen Gillan star in IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE a Focus World release. Photo courtesy of Focus World.
 (L to R) Tommy Nohilly, Toby Huss and Larry Fessenden star in IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE a Focus World release. Photo courtesy of Focus World.