We gave it a B
Ti West, the director of The House of the Devil, The Innkeepers, and The Sacrament, doesn’t possess the visual imagination or ear for dialogue of his most obvious cinematic antecedent Quentin Tarantino. Both men are cuckoo for opening credit sequences with big block letters and zesty music, though Tarantino does it better. But if West lacks Tarantino’s innate talent (and name recognition), he also lacks QT’s self-mythologizing ego—and that is a huge asset in West’s seventh feature, the scrappy and economical western In a Valley of Violence. The movie, West’s first outside of the horror realm, announces itself as an unabashed B-movie from its pre-credits scene—a corker involving a quiet man on horseback (Ethan Hawke) and a menacing priest (Burn Gorman) in late 1800s Texas—and never worries itself about being anything deeper than that.
The plot is staple Western gruel. Hawke’s character Paul and his beloved dog Abbie (played by the treat-deserving pooch Jumpy) intend to mosey on through a dusty town called Denton on their way to Mexico. They don’t get very far. A local trouble maker (James Ransone) challenges Paul to a fight, while a sweet little lady named Mary-Anne (Taissa Farmiga) takes a shine to him. Apart from having some of the characters speak in a modern cadence (especially Mary-Anne’s potty-mouthed sister, played noisily by Karen Gillan), West doesn’t mess with the basic ingredients of the genre. Check out last year’s sick, remarkable western Bone Tomahawk if you’re looking for a spicier meal. This one shares practically all the same plot beats as Kevin Costner’s underrated Open Range, replete with a dog in peril, and depending on the angle and the light, Ethan Hawke is a surprising doppelganger for Costner. And that’s not such a bad thing for the taciturn, expressionless performance that Hawke is going for here.
In a Valley of Violence is minor, but two key aspects elevate the whole experience above its modest trappings. First, the dark, beautiful musical score by composer Jeff Grace works excellently as a lush, hummable homage to Ennio Morricone, while still feeling very true to West’s horror movie roots. And second, in the film’s best performance, John Travolta appears as the frustrated father of Ransone’s bad boy. Somewhat unrecognizably sheathed in a gray beard and black cowboy hat (plus a terrific wooden leg), Travolta relishes the delightful genre contradictions of his role—a tired, peacenik U.S. Marshal—and West smartly gives him all the script’s best lines. “His nose’s gonna heal up like a crooked boot,” Travolta quips after his son loses a fight. Utilizing Travolta wisely is another connection between West and Tarantino, but a fresh, imaginative performance by the 62-year-old actor is by no means retro. It’s movie redeeming. B