SXSW Review: ‘IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE – An off-kilter western starring Ethan Hawke & John Travolta

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James Cole Clay // Film Critic 

IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE | 104 min | R
Director: Ti West
Cast: Ethan Hawke, John Travolta, James Ransone, Taissa Farmiga, Karen Gillan

Walking into Ti West’s IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE, there are many familiar aspects, but he’s the type of filmmaker not to be pinned down. This earnest western has it’s aesthetic firmly rooted in the genre with a slight twist of a winking tone that offers up several chuckling moments of dialogue. Its stars Ethan Hawke and John Travolta (giving his best work in years) know how to handle the off-kilter dialogue and simply just exist in this world that West has so adeptly established.

Using an occam’s razor approach to the tale of a drifter the film is stripped down to only the essential parts with just enough flair to keep you on your toes. West’s film has a (semi) hard boiled attitude that meanders through the prairie of the old west without a reason or rhyme to progress the plotting which becomes one of the film’s greatest assets (aside from the show-stealing Red Heeler, Jumpy who stars as Hawke’s dog). What starts off as an easy breezy saunter through the landscape turns into a revenge thriller.

The film begins with Hawke’s Paul, a drifter and former soldier, making his way to Mexico with his trusted dog Abbie by his side at every turn. He stops for supplies in the one horse town of Denton, only to run into a group of loud-mouth rabble rousers led by trigger happy Gilly (James Ransome playing the resident blackhat) who are causing trouble and getting liquored up at high noon. The townsfolk attempt to stay out of the way, but never take them as a serious threat– more so just the loudmouths puffing their chest for anybody who will listen.

l-r Abbie (aka Jumpy) and Ethan Hawke (Photo courtesty of Focus World)

l-r Abbie (aka Jumpy) and Ethan Hawke (Photo courtesty of Focus World)

Neither take kindly to each other’s existence so Paul takes shop in a local hotel run by two bickering sisters Ellen (Karen Gillan) and 16 year-old Mary Anne (Taissa Farmiga), the latter shares a liking to Hawke despite the taboo age difference. There Hawke remains in control of his performance by way of the handling the curious dialogue that Farmiga and Gillan have trouble adapting towards. Travolta comes out of left field as the marshall (and Gilly’’s father), which isn’t as menacing as it is idiosyncratic. It would behoove West and Travolta to team up again down the line.

West takes his time to get to know the townsfolk. He’s interested in the atmosphere and how the near ghost town operates daily. His skillful maneuvering through tones shows the ambition of a filmmaker who knows what he wants and challenges himself with each film.

IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE isn’t as invested in the actual gunslinging violence as it is in the dialogue leading up to the confrontations. Don’t be mistaken, while West’s work let’s the tension build the pay-off here is worth while. West keeps growing as a filmmaker with his most brisk and “fun” film to date.

IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE is being released by Focus World on September 16.