Something is seriously amiss about the aesthetics in Ti West’s new low-fi Western, In a Valley of Violence. And the story doesn’t help out either. From the opening scene where our lone hero, Paul (Ethan Hawke), comes across a stereotypically miscreant preacher on the outskirts of town, to the subsequent credit sequence, it’s clear West is going for a retrograde 70s vibe. But this all falls apart when we get to town.
The town is Denton, one of the dustiest, most sparsely populated towns in Western cinema history. And that’s the problem: this place is too dusty, too empty, too cheap looking to sell the mood West wants. Everything in Denton looks like a poorly-constructed set, and interiors have this weird, lightweight emptiness. The saloon Paul walks into and runs into predictable trouble looks like a set built in a church dining hall. Everything is spread out and there are only a couple of tables and chairs, giving the scenes this strange vacant feel.
It’s all really weird.
And, as far as I can tell, Denton is occupied by one group of misfits – the ones who stir up trouble with Paul – the leader’s manic, shrill girlfriend, a younger girl (Taissa Farmiga, Vera’s youngest sister) who takes an uncomfortable liking to Paul, and the Marshal, played by John Travolta with his standard VOD combo of silly accent and sillier facial hair. There are maybe a couple of other people in the background, and by that I mean literally two. From what I can tell, the town of Denton is populated by about ten people, and that’s including Paul and his trusty sidekick, his dog Abby. It’s almost as if West and his team were going to add in details to the set and people who actually live in Denton somehow in post production, and they just never got around to it.
As for the plot, well, it’s quite literally the John Wick story refashioned with cowboy hats and horses. Paul is a Civil War deserter who was a skilled killer back in his day, and he “doesn’t want any trouble” anymore. He finds trouble in town of course, but then goes about his business until his dog is murdered and he seeks revenge (Maybe this is a spoiler, but the trailer all but shows this). This is John Wick all the way down to the dog.
Hawke and Travolta do their best with the material, but In a Valley of Violence feels like a short film pushed and pulled and stretched into a 104 minute feature. Whatever eventually happens could have been trimmed down and fit into a 40-minute vignette. Every moment of action is preceded by seemingly endless buildup and very little pay off. For example, early in the film when Paul gets into a scrum with Gilly, one of the baddies in town (James Ransone, a cookie cutter villain), Gilly stomps outside and calls out Paul for a fight. We’re presuming a gunfight in the middle of town, but what we get after what feels like an eternity of “tension building” is Paul walking up to Gilly and punching him. He knocks him out in front of the other six occupants of Denton – except the Marshal who must be sleeping or something.
That’s it. That’s the payoff, and it’s the whole movie in a single moment. Paul gets his vengeance and we plod along predictable lines until we reach a merciful end. In a Valley of Violence feels like an incomplete film, a weird experimental film school movie, a major disappointment on a story level that doesn’t even have the “at least it’s good to look at” aesthetic to fall back on.