Perhaps what writer/director/editor Ti West unquestionably adores more than genre cinema itself is revisionism. His previous spookshows (House of the Devil/The Innkeepers/The Sacrament) indulge cliches, but their mounting dread via calculated pacing almost makes them worth it. Watching his episodes of Trailers From Hell, where he dishes out on Clue, The Monster Squad, and the Indiana Jones franchise, repurposing seems his bag. If only his palpable enthusiasm matched his skillset. In a Valley of Violence, West’s first Western, seems to be a revisionist spin on a revisionist spin; the Leone, Peckinpah, and Corbucci takes on the genre, from which West plumbs most freely, were harsher and less romantic than the Ford or Hawks outings. What we have here is a SpaghettiOs Western: synthesis of those trademarks (lived-in desolation; a leading man of few words; horrific violence-as-commentary) without authenticity. It looks like a Western (those mesas do look gorgeous in Eric Robbins’s 35mm camerawork), sounds like a Western (Jeff Grace’s mimicry of Morricone and Greenwood underscores standard speeches of “this town could use some saving,” among others), and that self-awareness is ultimately a major hindrance.
The first shot is of Abbie (YouTube sensation Jumpy, a trickster collie/heeler in her film debut), which should spell out the most compelling part of In A Valley of Violence. Oft-tragically doomed bonds are West’s strongest suit, be it Greta Gerwig’s shocking end in House of the Devil or the ripped-from-Jonestown punch-party closing out The Sacrament. Abbie offers more than some rare first-rate animal acting; she’s the audience’s emotional compass, her brutal removal from few-worded wanderer Paul (Ethan Hawke, in his second Western of the year) the first major loss of innocence a la John Wick or The Road Warrior. Though the film takes glee in violent death, the main characters are less inclined, making West’s politics here rather confusing. The violence of 60s and 70s Westerns were meant for shock and ponderance, both upon the frontier times’ bloody past and whatever contemporary bloodshed went down. Certainly, violence hasn’t ceased, but West is less allegorical. He needn’t it, but it seems as though he missed their point.
We first meet Paul and Abbie wounding a false priest, but he’s far less trigger-happy than the citizens he meets in archetypal Wild West town Denton, which would fit neatly into that new HBO show about our flawed romance towards the West. Gilly (John Ransone, our Buford “Mad Dog” Tannen for the evening) talks a big game but can’t fight for shit. He’s just as cowardly as his flunkies, but masks it with unchecked aggression. He’ll kill, but with hesitance. It’s really the only thing he has in common with Paul, but Paul is less malicious and less likely to act. The relationship between violence and cowardice is one theme West only brushes upon with faltering execution. It’s eclipsed by a flaccid emphasis on motormouths; Paul only feels comfortable saying a few words to Abbie, and can barely get a word in when pampered by ever-flustered Tessa Farmiga, who constantly bickers with her sister who’s also Gilly’s fiance. It’s also one of the only strengths of one-legged town marshal (John Travolta), who seems to have lost the ability to lord over Denton. Aside from Jumpy, Travolta’s a welcome presence. He may be in bargain-bin limbo, but his villain chops can’t be ignored.
There’s growth here for West, even if it’s clumsy. Not simply an outing with locally-sourced friends, In A Valley of Violence shows a still-young director eager to make bigger crowd-pleasers than before. Even if his actors can’t agree on whether they’re in a comedy or a dirge, they make the tired retreads through barroom brawls and high-noon shootouts worthwhile. Without Abbie, it’d be near-indistinguishable from most other nostalgia-porn genre exercises. It has pronouncements to make, but it’s too gun-shy to follow through.