Since 2009, I’ve held out hope for Ti West. Well, technically 2011 because that’s when I first encountered the vintage horror throwback The House of the Devil which an amazing slow burn of an occult-centric plot akin to Rosemary’s Baby. His follow up supernatural, haunted house flick Innkeepers while not as innovative, packs some extremely effective scares. In 2013, I saw my first West film in theaters with The Sacrament which as much as I want to defend it, I can’t fully get behind. It culminates in being a let down by going the annoying found-footage route and in this case, the slow burn backfires. The ending is greatly unsatisfying and e-mail me if you want my way more exciting theoretical ending that I’ve been sitting on for three years. After that misstep, I’ve been anxiously waiting for the young director to rebound. His newest feature diverts from the horror genre as he branches out west. Sadly, his efforts feel wasted as In a Valley of Violence is less new and more of a first draft Tarantino knockoff.
There is a genre of indie that could be labeled “Tarantino Adjacent” as films made in a post Pulp Fiction world tend to borrow elements he has made iconic. What hurts Valley of Violence double is that it’s ripping off Tarantino and the movies Tarantino is ripping off. It’s the grindhouse, western setting of Django and The Hateful Eight with the modern, pontificating dialogue of Pulp Fiction. With the animated, opening credits with 70’s font and faux philosophical monologues, it’s deja vu. Set in a nearly deserted town, populated by a few heathens, army deserter Paul (Ethan Hawke) attempts to cross through on his way to Mexico. The cocky deputy Gilly (James Ransone) and his gang of idiots, stir up trouble with the drifter, namely killing his dog, which leads to a (literal) bloodbath and shootout on the sleepy dirt streets. Yes, this furthers the other budding genre of canine revenge films started by John Wick. I have no qualms with this because it’s better than the usual of avenging the raped and murdered wife which I don’t ever need to see again.
The strengths of this movie come from West’s talent as a director and the weaknesses are him as a writer. The way he walks the camera through the town gives life to a set that feels cheap in the way that it was obviously built for the movie and they couldn’t afford extras to populate it. The one flashback in the film is of Paul remembering his traumatic wartime experience, something we’ve seen a million times but he shoots it in pitch black with only a flashlight amount of lighting to sharply illuminate the subject’s face. It’s shot like found footage of his memory and is one of the best scenes in the movie. Maybe it works because it’s silent and because I enjoyed the less people spoke. It’s an instance where Tarantino could make it work but West couldn’t as he gives a modern spin with the vernacular choices and it becomes nails on the chalkboard. Taissa Farmiga and Karen Gillan play sisters and their bickering about men and well, men (the movie doesn’t pass the Bechdel test) sounds right out of 2016. Not that you have to sell the 1800’s time period but the tone is not self-aware enough to balance out that very strong choice. Because the women and especially Ransone are playing it so big, Hawke feels like he’s in the wrong movie. Travolta is more at Hawke’s level which makes me wish that like the poster seemed to promise, the movie had been just them. A cat and mouse game between the two would have made a more believable movie but having to sit through a pompous Ransone and shrill Gillan argue in a room for ten minutes is unintentionally aggravating. The dog performance really comes out on top which is why they had to kill her, she really stole the spotlight.
In a Valley of Violence is a solid “ok” movie. It doesn’t do anything that wrong but doesn’t offer anything extraordinary. The preconceived notions of straight to video (now straight to on-demand) movies were that they must be bad or worse, bland. As much as I can say West did a great job directing, I will promptly forget this film. I’d almost give more credence to Sacrament because that one is on the cusp of doing something great but fails. This movie isn’t even trying. West wanted to try something other than horror but in doing so plays it way too safe. In this new wave of westerns, I like the variety of one that doesn’t take itself as seriously (and isn’t Ridiculous 6) but your time is better spent with the extra 90 minutes watching Django because if you’re gonna see a neo-western, at least see it done right.