Westerns have certainly come roaring back. It’s rather ironic, because they tend to embrace elements that many of us find repugnant (or should anyway). Classic westerns tend to be about the mighty white man who conquers nature, women, villains, and Native Americans to triumph over evil. So when today’s westerns fail, they tend to fail hard, and you get offerings like The Lone Ranger, A Million Ways To Die in the West, and The Ridiculous 6.
Fortunately, In a Valley of Violence is more in the vein of Meek’s Cutoff, Slow West, and The Salvation. Writer-director Ti West (who also produced and edited) remarked that people engage in violence because they don’t have a better option, and Valley certainly makes a good case for that belief while subverting the genre’s staples and providing some very enjoyable dialogue.
Ethan Hawke is Paul, the mysterious, tormented stranger who rides into the town of Denton, a frontier town so bleak it’s practically been abandoned. But it turns out those who remain are more than capable of making the worst of their circumstances. Much like Hawke did in Sinister, he encounters a deputy played by James Ransone, but this time around their relationship is far more…contentious. When Ransone’s Gilly threatens Paul’s dog Abbie, who may be one of the most charismatic, scene-stealing canines in movie history, Paul quickly and easily gives Gilly a sound beating. But Gilly has connections in the form of his father, The Marshal (John Travolta, giving one of his best performances of late), who decides to banish Paul. Paul happily accepts, but later that night, Gilly decides to avenge his pride and kill Abbie, and of course believes he kills Paul as well. But Paul survives and vows revenge.
What follows is a bloody standoff that’s almost as humorous as it is brutal. It may be caused by a dog, but rest assured that Abbie is totally worth the fuss. It certainly fits West’s opinions of violence and its ultimate meaninglessness. The villains may mostly get what’s coming to them, but West doesn’t allow any death to occur in a glorious blaze of righteousness. Even the worst of the bad guys come to their ends in unpleasantly realistic ways that are pretty hard to revel in, and Hawke and his teenage love interest Mary Anne (Taissa Farmiga) both slowly reveal themselves to be far less deserving of sympathy than they appear to be. The age gap is certainly unpleasant, but in “Valley,” their relationship is merely a natural result of the limited options they both have. As Paul himself points out to her, he is not the hero she imagines will save her and take her away to a better life. But Mary Anne may be willing to do even more reprehensible things to get the hell out of Dodge and secure her happy ending than her sister Ellen (the always enjoyable Karen Gillan of Doctor Who), a tall order considering Ellen is willing to become Gilly’s fiance. Hell, the clearly corrupt Marshal may be the only one concerned with the greater good and the town itself. He even knows what his son is, and is still willing to risk his life to protect him regardless.
When the dust clears, the movie suggests that everyone gets the ending they deserve, for better and…no, pretty much the worst. Only the worst really. But the road there is compulsively watchable.