The opening scene and title sequence of In a Valley of Violence suggest a fun western that pays homage to Spaghetti westerns, hopefully with some twists and Tarantino-esque cleverness. Unfortunately the film that follows lacks the playfulness and style of those films, opting instead for a straightforward revenge story.
Ethan Hawke plays the mysterious stranger who wanders into the town of Denton, aka the “Valley of Violence”, hoping for just a brief stopover on his way to Mexico. When your hero starts the film as a pacifist with a dog, you know it’s not going to end well for the dog. It’s not long before local blowhard (James Ransone) picks a fight with him and while the stranger easily bests the fool, we know this will only provoke him further. The coward takes it out on the man’s best friend under the cover of night.
All the proper ingredients are here, they just seem half baked. While Westerns have once again become ubiquitous, I was curious to see what spin competent horror director Ti West (House of the Devil, The Innkeepers) would put on it, and Ethan Hawke always makes interesting choices. When someone (or something) creeps up on the stranger’s camp site in the middle of the night and begins whispering inhuman noises that sound like parseltongue, it felt like it was about to take a supernatural twist, which got my hopes up. The creepy whispering is never explained and the only other fantastic occurance is when our protagonist is seemingly uninjured after getting dropped off a cliff, as he simply gets up and walks away to exact his revenge.
Of course the cowardly dog killer needs to have an excuse for acting so entitled, in this case he’s a deputy and son to the Marshal played by John Travolta, who turns out to be the most interesting character. Much like the father of the dog killer in John Wick (basically the exact same story), the Marshal knows his son is an instigator and an idiot, but he must defend him nonetheless. The best scenes are the ones between Hawke and Travolta, who save the film with their combined experience of over 70 years in front of the camera. Unfortunately Ransone’s obnoxious deputy remains the primary antagonist.
The tone remains pretty dour throughout. The few jokes are usually at the expense of a hefty deputy, but you may get a chuckle from one of the worst uses of the Wilhelm scream ever. For a better recent take on the ‘gunslinger forced out of retirement by local jerks’ narrative, watch last year’s Forsaken. It’s just one example of many lesser westerns that have left a bigger impression than In a Valley of Violence is likely to.