I almost feel bad for Ti West because In a Valley of Violence is a film that I can guarantee you will be unfairly compared to 2014’s John Wick. Granted, the comparison isn’t necessarily unfounded. After all, both are revenge films about men with a violent past that they are trying to escape from, in this case – Paul (Ethan Hawke), but end up finding themselves on a quest for vengeance after the death of their dog. However, if you’re going to get too caught up on surface level similarities, you end up doing yourself a disservice, not just in terms of how you engage with films, but also in missing out on what is a pretty awesome movie.
I’ve liked, and in some cases loved, most of Ti West’s horror films, with The Innkeepers being my favorite of the bunch. I like his particular brand of slow burn chillers, as divisive as they may end up being. So, even with him finally turn away from horror and into a completely different style of filmmaking, it’s nice to see some of his classic touches within the western genre throughout In a Valley of Violence.
Part of the joy that comes from watching the movie is seeing West completely lose himself in the western sandbox. It’s a film that is clearly made with love, and the feeling is immediate when a cool, retro opening credits sequence plays with an incredible score playing under it by Jeff Grace. It’s a film that echoes westerns of the past, indulging in traditional tropes and stylistic embellishments. It authentically looks and feels like a spaghetti western, not the classy Sergio Leone type, but the cheaper, dirtier, sleazier ones that you don’t normally hear about. Stuff like Death Rides a Horse, A Town Called Hell, My Name is Nobody, etc. However, the film is also straight up hilarious. West plays the tropes with a mostly straight face, but those tropes fall into the laps of characters who are simply incapable of pulling those cool moments off. The villain of the film, Gilly (James Ransone), is a pathetic, hypermasculine dope who is nowhere near as badass as he think he is. Even Gilly’s father, Clyde (John Travolta), cannot control him. His sidekicks are also, in their own ways, weak and incompetent. Taissa Farmiga’s Mary-Anne might be the only sane person in the entire small town that Paul enters and finds trouble in.
West hasn’t been this playful with his characters before, at least not since The Innkeepers, and it helps make the film so much more engaging, especially since it continues his trend of keeping a buildup for a majority of the film all the way to the violent climax. West makes you wait for the blood to start spilling, but the way he bounces these characters off each other in this tiny little world that they live in, it makes the buildup go by surprisingly fast. You actively get to understand, almost empathize, with these characters who are otherwise obnoxious and idiotic. Though, it’s hard not to get behind Paul once he decides to go on his revenge spree, mostly due to Hawke’s performance, which is really raw and played with a level of fury and sadness that almost isn’t even necessary for this kind of movie, but Hawke playing it that way allows for some greater, understated depth and humanity.
In a Valley of Violence is a fairly simple genre exercise on the surface, but there are small details and clever twists with the storytelling that really adds more to the characters. But most importantly, it is just a blast to watch. As pure, unabashed throwback entertainment, this is probably one of the best theatrical experiences I’ve had all year. It’s a film that is lovingly crafted from top to bottom with an obvious appreciation for the genre, and all the actors are totally in sync with West’s bizarro vision of the old west. It’s easily his most accessible film to date, but I would also argue it might even be his best. If West is able to bring this level of playfulness and craftsmanship to a genre he hasn’t touched, I’m more than excited to see where else he is willing to explore. 90/100
In a Valley of Violence will be given a limited theatrical release, as well as on VOD platforms on October 21st.