My notes on Ti West’s Western In a Valley of Violence, which screened at Fantasia.
The slow, steady Western renaissance continues with this pleasantly archetypal stranger-rides-into-town film from Ti West. If the plot owes something to First Blood, as a posse of goons unwisely pick on a traumatised army veteran, then it’s fair to point out that David Morell’s novel was itself a post-Vietnam gloss on a strain of Western cinema epitomised by Tell Them Willie Boy is Here.
After an encounter with a whisky-chugging, larcenous priest (Burn Gorman) in the desert, Paul (Ethan Hawke) – riding South to Mexico after a horrible experience in the Indian wars – is quietly drinking water in a saloon when loudmouth Gilly Martin (James Ransone), whose name perhaps derives from Gil-Martin (the Devil from James Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner), picks a fight with him. Though slow to anger, because he has promised his dog Abby (!) there’ll be no more killing, Paul is needled into the fight, which he ends by laying the braggart out with one punch. Only it turns out that Gilly is the son (and deputy) of a one-legged, town-running Marshal (John Travolta) and his gang of verminous bully-boys (Toby Huss, Larry Fessenden, Tommy Nohilly) are duly-appointed peace officers. The stranger also excites the interest of fifteen-year-old abandoned wife Mary Anne (Taissa Farmiga) and the enmity of her sister Ellen (Karen Gillan), who is engaged to Gilly. It seems for a while, as the Marshal talks and wheedles and Paul listens sagely, that the situation can be defused … but it doesn’t do to underestimate the arrogance, cruelty and bone-stupidity of obvious owlhoots like Gilly and his cronies, and they make an attempt to teach Paul a lesson that rebounds when the stranger returns to the town to exact furious vengeance after the manner of the High Plains Drifter.
A persistent Western theme is the former man of violence who tries to live peacefully but is eventually spurred to put on his guns again – Anthony Mann’s Man of the West is a great example from the classic era, but the use of the theme in Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven has fed into a quite a few variations in recent years (Open Range, The Homesman, The Salvation) – perhaps relating to contemporary veterans’ issues the way ‘70s Westerns reflect Vietnam. Hawke, one of the most enterprising stars around at the moment, takes his turn to play a classic man-on-a-horse role. The first half of the film, which has the even pacing typical of West, stresses conversational confrontations rather than action – Paul is taciturn with folks but chatty with his dog, while the townsfolk talk at him because a stranger is a novelty, whether they’re flirting like Mary Anne or threatening like Gilly. The shadow of Tarantino falls inevitably, especially with Travolta in the senior heavy role, but it’s another cowboy mode with deep roots – Jack Palance’s needling speeches before outgunning folks in Shane come to mind, and a recent stage production played up the fiendish eloquence of Dorothy M. Hughes’ Liberty Valance in a similar manner.
The second half of the film is an exercise in genre conventions or clichés, depending on your sympathies with the form – there are actually several surprises, including a face-off which doesn’t go the way one major character expects, but it’s plain from the git-go that Gilly and his posse are going to regret bushwhacking Paul and not making sure he’s dead, and that the town is going to sustain a lot of damage in the process. Like most directors who get to play cowboys these days, West relishes frills like the rich red spaghetti western titles, justifiable overacting from supporting grotesques (Gorman and Fessenden, especially) and the Morricone pastiche score by Jeff Grace.