TADFF2016 Review: In the Valley of Violence

The Western has enjoyed enduring popularity for decades. Its heyday was probably the 1960s but that hasn’t stopped many directors from continuing to try their hand at the genre. Ti West is the latest director to give it a go, departing from his usual suspense and horror fare that he’s known for. His new film In the Valley of Violence is a classic revenge story starring Ethan Hawke in his second Western of the year. It’s the kind of story that has been done many times so it’s bound to be difficult to find a fresh angle that breathes new life into it. Unfortunately for West, he is unable to find that spark that gives us something fresh and exciting, instead producing something that feels like it has been done before and better.

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Paul (Ethan Hawke) is a mysterious stranger roaming the wide-open plains, headed nowhere in particular. His only company on the journey is his well-trained dog he picked up along the way. Paul stumbles into quiet little town that doesn’t take too kindly to confident strangers and the town misfit Gilly (James Ransone), the son of the sheriff, becomes confrontational. Paul humiliates him in a fight outside the bar and the townspeople ask him to leave. Gilly is determined to get revenge. One night while Paul is sleeping next to a fire up in the hills, a gang from town find him and his dog and commit a heinous act of violence to get even. Paul is determined to make the men pay for what they’ve done and executes a plan of revenge on the people of this town.

This is a story that has been used in this genre since the invention of the Western. While its tradition is no doubt steeped in true stories of America’s West, it’s become an easy cliché to use and no longer feels fresh. The use of it here isn’t even particularly grandiose, which it needs to be in order to work. Instead the film feels like it suffered from the constraints of its small scale and limited budget. The violent act in the story wasn’t extreme enough to warrant the level of revenge being exacted and its execution lacked excitement and urgency.

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The strongest element to the film was Paul’s dog. The animal used in the film was extremely well-trained and brought energy and life to a listless story. He was charming and lovable which did lead to some emotional connection with Paul and his devastation when Gilly acted out.  The dog was the star of the film.

John Travolta, playing a minor role here as the town sheriff, continues to struggle with his acting choices. Much like Nicolas Cage, he’s choosing projects for a paycheck that don’t offer much substance and he plays them too exaggerated. Taking a more serious approach to the material might have produced a better performance.

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Ti West also seems to be still striving to hit that home run that he needs in his work. He is a competent director who has worked with some great actors but his films always just seem to miss the mark, unable to fully connect the audience to the material. In the Valley of Violence is a well-enough made film but unfortunately it doesn’t stand out from the pack and once again leaves West on the periphery of breaking through to the big leagues. If you’re in the mood for a Western, there are better choices out there.

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