SXSW: “In a Valley of Violence” leans on humor, violence to elevate thin story

Charles Liu

Ti West’s revenge picture “In a Valley of Violence” evokes the Spaghetti Westerns of old. Its colors are crisp, its music recalls the work of Ennio Morricone and it all boils down to a battle of wits and bullets.

In the lead role, Ethan Hawke channels Clint Eastwood as Paul, a loner whose only company is a rifle, a horse and his unbearably charming dog, Abby. He’s on his way to Mexico, having deserted the Army and his wife and daughter before that. He’s a man on the run from his dark past of bloodshed and failure, but fate won’t let him escape that easily.

He runs into trouble in the town of Denton, a forgotten settlement ruled by a surprisingly level-headed U.S. marshal (John Travolta) and his bratty, megalomaniacal son Gilly (James Ransone). Gilly goads Paul into a fistfight and loses spectacularly, after which the marshal warns Paul to never come back to Denton again. The only person who treats Paul with kindness is Mary Anne (Taissa Farmiga), a young innkeeper whose older sister Ellen (Karen Gillan) is in a relationship with Gilly.

After Paul leaves town, Gilly and his cowardly comrades give chase and ambush him. Something happens. As said earlier, this is a revenge picture. There’s also a very, very lovable dog.

Paul is left for dead, but of course, as it generally is with heroes, he’s not out of the game yet. He returns to Denton, intent on killing the men responsible for his pain.

“In a Valley of Violence” doesn’t try to escape the trappings of the Western genre, playing out exactly as one would expect it to. For the most part, the violence is restrained, excepting one gory moment where a man has his throat sliced in a bathtub. It owes a lot to classics such as “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” and “The Searchers,” and Denton is an Old West town that viewers will feel they have visited many times before.

The cast plays archetypes rather than characters. Ransone pulls off bratty, Travolta commands a strong presence as the town’s de facto leader and Farmiga lifts up the picture with her youthful exuberance, while Gillan is occasionally too cartoonish.

West brings some of his horror sensibilities to “In a Valley of Violence.” The first half patiently establishes the chess pieces and relies heavily on the suspense of what will happen rather than what does. The second half sees Paul become a boogeyman of sorts, striking the villains suddenly and ferociously, and his methods are so efficient and scary that it’s hard not to sympathize with the villains when the climactic shootout goes down.

However, West also demonstrates a capacity for comedy. Much of “In a Valley of Violence” leans on dark comedy, and there are a multitude of truly laugh-out-loud moments to balance the emotionally heavier scenes. The marshal is perhaps the funniest of the characters because he’s the straight man, an increasingly desperate guy who helplessly watches the rule of law crumble around him because he couldn’t keep his idiot son in line.

Though its second half is well-staged and well-executed, “In a Valley of Violence” doesn’t capitalize on its hero’s disturbing history. There’s an interesting dream sequence where Paul remembers killing a Native American, and that’s as far as his past goes from subtextual territory. Paul is haunted by his deeds, yes, but that doesn’t stop him from breaking his oath to never kill again and spend the rest of the movie murdering dudes. The depth West adds to Paul’s character never gets any real payoff, which will leave some viewers a little cold by the closing credits.

“In a Valley of Violence” opens strong, yet doesn’t make good on its promise in its closing minutes. Rest assured, it’s rousing, casual fun that serves as another fine entry into the Western genre. Just don’t expect to leave it absolutely thrilled — this is a genre picture that loads the gun but never pulls the trigger.

“In a Valley of Violence”

  • Running Time: 105 minutes
  • Rating: R
  • Score: 3.5/5 stars