Director: Ti West
Cast: Ethan Hawke, John Travolta, Taissa Farmiga
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Ever since 2009’s The House of the Devil, Ti West has been one of the more interesting, idiosyncratic horror filmmakers on the scene. Now, he makes a leap into the Wild West, not only switching up format, but also taking on an A-list cast to boot. If that sounds like West has traded up for a mainstream thriller, though, make no mistake: the director is less a horror filmmaker and more a studious master of genre, able to apply his gradual pacing and careful tweaking of tropes to any arena he chooses. The prospect of him tackling a Western, then, is one to relish with both smacked lips.
Ethan Hawke stars as Paul, a familiar loner who wanders the grizzled West with a faithful dog in tow – until he comes across Denton, a town where the windows are boarded up and the people are quiet. Except, that is, for Gilly (James Ransone), a loud mouth idiot with a flair for brutality. And so it’s just Paul’s luck that his trip to the local saloon to get water for his dog should put him in Gilly’s path. And that Gilly’s father should turn out to be the local marshal (John Travolta). Crossed words turn to cruel acts and what unfolds is a tit-for-tat cycle of revenge, escalating to silly, gory extremes.
It sounds like a formula for a taut, grisly thriller, and West certainly doesn’t skimp on the red stuff, bringing his horror nous to the fore with some action that lives up to the movie’s title. But rather than letting bullets fly, West keeps things low-key, to mixed results. There’s an undeniable joy to be found in seeing him flex his muscles in a new setting, rustling up a cast to do his direction justice: Burn Gorman as a drunken priest is wonderful value, while Karen Gillen is entertaining as one of two bitter sisters who run the local hotel where Paul finds himself shacked up. But West’s typically assured grasp of tone gets away from him here, never quite sure whether to keep things straight-faced or lean into the absurd humour of the meaningless chaos.
Hawke is as fantastic as ever, his weary, expressive, vulnerable features a perfect fit for the part of a tired loner not wanting to get involved in more bloodshed. His dog is even better, providing a faithful companion who acts and performs tricks with Uggie-worthy charisma. Travolta, meanwhile, reminds us just how fun he can be as the Marshal, part-ruthless military veteran and part-exasperated father.
The trouble, though, is that their two contrasting presences only highlight the uneven mood, which moves between amusement and serious macho posturing – and some earnest man-dog bonding. Jeff Grace’s old-school score helps to bridge the divide, balancing pastiche and respectful tribute with the same affection that West clearly has for the genre. The result isn’t quite the sharp-shooter you expect, but it’s a diverting addition to the expanding canon of modern takes on one of cinema’s oldest genres. The prospect of Ti West tackling a Western remains one to relish – you just can’t shake the suspicion that this is merely a taster of what he could do.
In a Valley of Violence is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.
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