Overview: A man on his way to Mexico with his dog encounters trouble from locals in a dying town known as the Valley of Violence. Focus World; 2016; Rated R; 104 minutes.
A Deadly Quiet: Early on in In a Valley of Violence, Ethan Hawke’s drifter Paul admits to his dog Abbie that he’s beginning to have trouble speaking, that he’s forgetting how to engage in conversation with other human beings. The silent Western hero has become as much a staple of the genre as seedy corrals and quick-drawn gunfights. But Paul isn’t quiet in some effort to maintain some Eastwood-esque cowboy coolness; he’s quiet because his violent path has psychologically severed his connection to other human beings. He rarely makes eye contact, and he doesn’t waste words—yet we’re given the sense that he wishes he could do these things and make these connections. Paul longs for the freedom that human communication allows and yet has no clear path to reclaim it. His inability to communicate is the very thing that sets in motion a chain of events that adds a good deal more blood to the Valley of Violence. Once Paul’s quiet nature becomes a source of contention for the Marshal’s son, Gilly (James Ransone), he is forced to defend himself and in the process loses what is seemingly his last source of companionship. In terms of setup, In a Valley of Violence is very much like a western John Wick, and the film is sure to draw comparisons once its viewership increases, but its variance of language and violence showcases a more layered character who isn’t a representative of the American action-hero but of the deep-seated American hurt that creates a masculinity unworthy of survival.
Say Your Piece and Draw Your Piece: Paul’s confidential and muted nature is put directly at odds with every other character in In a Valley of Violence. These characters are verbose and full of sharply-tuned wit in a way that far surpasses the characters in Ti West’s other films. At the front of this glut of words are Ellen (Karen Gillan) and her sister Mary-Anne (Taissa Farmiga). Ellen is said to be dim-witted, and Mary-Anne naïve, and they are that in part, but they are also the characters with the greatest survival instincts, because they understand that survival is predicated on communication. Mary-Anne’s unflinching willingness to speak everything on her mind is the very thing that reminds Paul how much he misses human conversation. When Mary-Anne begs Paul to take her with him and forget about Gilly and his friends, he tells her that just because she’s suffering in the valley of violence doesn’t mean the next place he takes her to won’t be just as bad or worst. “Whole world’s suffering,” he says before telling her that he’s not a good man. Mary-Anne responds in turn that she is good and shouldn’t have to be punished because of that. But Paul, saddled with the things he did in the war and his need for revenge, is too driven by his own hurt to hear her and thus rides off into confrontation.
As Paul hunts down Gilly and the men who attacked him, Ellen reveals to her fiancé that she is pregnant, in an attempt to stop him from engaging in the battle. Gilly balks at her, asking why she thought that moment was a good time to tell him that. The moment is played for laughs, but the reality of that scene is that it was the perfect moment because Ellen, like her sister, understands that what is said and when it’s said has power over life.
The timing of words is central to the town’s figure of power, Marshal Clyde Martin, who says all the right things but says them too late throughout In a Valley of Violence. In what is his best performance since Pulp Fiction, John Travolta plays Marshal Martin with a sinister impartiality. The Marshal is by no means a good man, but he shows an understanding of the situation at hand and of individuals in play, but his duty to his son Gilly is his source of weakness. He tells Gilly, “You think because you have a dick and a gun that you can just kill someone.” His words ring true, but it’s too little too late. In this town of nobodies that the Marshall, his son, and his friends have squeezed dry, there is a desperate need to prove masculinity through showy displays of ownership, but there’s nothing left to own so the town’s poverty has left them impotent. The Marshal’s talk of dicks and guns comes too late for his adult son who has spent his entire life in the belief that his poorly defined terms of masculinity make the world go ‘round, when it is in fact the very thing that has halted it.
While the voices of women in Westerns both classic and modern tend to be ancillary, here they are the pathways out of In a Valley of Violence, both the figurative and literal ones. The Valley of Violence most important to this film isn’t the town, but the space between the head and the heart: the throat. The first man that Paul kills he does so by slicing his throat with a razor blade in what is the most bloody and violent scene in the movie, and the only kill that occurs without a gun. It’s no coincidence that it is the part of the body that enables that speech has the most control over life and death and is the true way in or out of the valley of violence.
Devil’s Here Too: Just because Ti West tries his hand at new genre doesn’t mean he’s completely left his horror roots behind. The tools of the horror genre are clearly on display in In a Valley of Violence as Paul becomes a slasher movie killer, disappearing behind corners and striking when his victims least expect it. Paul isn’t an action hero, making head shot after head shot, he’s a boogeyman, but one that in true horror movie fashion is still vulnerable to pain. Paul’s vengeance is a struggle, and West makes him just as subject to the toll of violence as those he’s up against.
In a Valley of Violence may be one of the only Westerns to use a jump scare, and to do it so effectively that the viewer remains on edge for the rest of the film. Paul’s flashback scene to the war could be straight out of a horror movie, and it plays so much like one that it’s hard not to wonder for a brief minute if there’s going to be some sort of supernatural twist involved. But this isn’t a horror movie—it’s a western through and through that uses the other genre to make a statement. Westerns may be known for their violence and specific scenes of tension, but rarely could they be considered thrillers or even still, horrific. But West uses this straightforward story as an exercise to inject tension in nearly every scene, eliminating any fear that this will be a drawn-out affair that its ilk sometimes fall prey to. In a Valley of Violence displays a clever use of humor, but make no mistake, man’s inability to communicate or move past pain is more horrific than funny.
Overall: Simple, effective, and stylish are adjectives that could describe the majority of Ti West’s career as a filmmaker, but here they all come to fruition with such ease and self-assurance that this may very well be his strongest film yet. In a Valley of Violence may not rewrite the rules of the genre, but it is a unique addition with a voice that feels particularly necessary given how much of our country today still seems dictated by the rules of the wild west. And yes, this time around Ti West absolutely sticks the landing.
Featured Image: Focus World