Bookended by brawls, “In a Valley of Violence” delivers on the promise of its title. There’s plenty of bloodshed to go around in Ti West‘s retrofitted western: hand-to-hand combat, cheap shots to the jugular, elongated shootouts, knife fights. If violence is what you want, then violence is what you get.
However, there’s an inescapable hollowness to this small-town warfare. The dispensing of bodies — both humans and animals alike — contain almost zero dramatic weight. Death is presented, but never felt. Its magnitude reduced to a quippy line of dialogue in the name of middling comedy. At least for the first 90 minutes.
The aforementioned opening physical quibble is the product of pride. Nomad Paul (Ethan Hawke), accompanied by his dog Abbie (Jumpy), walks into a dusty saloon filled with cigarette smoke and small talk. He asks for water from the craggy bartender, who’s a bit surprised by the lack of alcohol in Paul’s drink order. Paul doesn’t want booze, though: He’s been in the desert for too many days and nights to put down anything but water. Hydration is key.
It’s only a matter of time, though, before Paul is identified by the locals as a drifter. “Hey fellas,” says Gilly (James Ransone, “Sinister”), “I don’t think this bum knows where he is.” Threatened by Paul’s reticence, alpha-dog Gilly challenges him to a duel in the middle of town square. Gilly’s goading eventually gets under Paul’s thick skin.
The barren town of Denton, otherwise referred to as the “valley of violence,” watches this battle with gleeful excitement. On one hand, some want the out-of-towner to get back to where he came from. On the other, some folks — like Gilly’s girlfriend, Mary-Ann (Taissa Farmiga, “American Horror Story”), who takes an interest in Paul — are tired of Gilly’s dangerous bullying and his tendency to control people by any means necessary.
For the first 20 minutes, West (“The House of the Devil,” “The Innkeepers”) does an effective job of establishing setting and stakes. Even the mystery of Paul’s checkered backstory remains intact, and enticing, but only to a certain point. Paul and Gilly participate in one of the quickest psychical skirmishes in fighting history, the Mike Tyson of Western scuffles. Paul knocks him out with one punch, rendering the Denton crowd silent.
The hand-to-hand tango has consequences, though. Within his own script, West concocts a domino effect: Paul is asked, politely but firmly, by the town marshall (played by John Travolta) to leave town. By minute 45, “In a Valley of Violence” could conclude and just exist as a satisfying short film fueled by a violent outburst. Of course, West does not rest there. Gilly and his coterie of bandits refuse to go down without a fight. The acceptance of a minor loss is not possible.
Consequently, the movie resides in this drab grey area for awhile. It’s an in-between segment where Paul and Abbie unknowingly wait for Gilly and company to show up. This is the spot where West wastes an opportunity to provide context, emotion, backstory for our hero. The “unknown” facets of Paul depreciate in value. At first, keeping our protagonist enshrouded in mystery is intriguing. We’re hooked; we want to know more.
But the more never comes. Instead, West sidesteps to generic Western clichés, walking headfirst into tonal miscalculations. Rarely do you see a movie with such an identity crisis. West wants to make a traditional western that simultaneously upends the power dynamic of John Ford films, while, also, somehow, poking fun at the movies he’s paying homage to. It’s an undeniably ambitious and scattered affair.
Ultimately, “In a Valley of Violence” thrives is in its final 20 minutes. In one of the more impressive sudden upticks in quality by a film in 2016, West seems to finally figure out what kind of a movie he wanted to make: a comedy. The concluding combat sequences are occupied by physical and witty gags.
The more unhinged Gilly becomes, the funnier this all is. Travolta also awakes from his slumber to deliver clever one-liners. Hawke injects humor with pithy remarks, too. Throughout the final breath of this movie, West is humorously commenting on the futility of this conflict and the cowardice of its participants — the inherent pointlessness of murder driven by hubris. Most interestingly, though, West presents the situation for what it is: a shoebox town in the middle of the desert, enveloped in emptiness, that still can’t manage to exist in harmony.
If only the movie understood its allegorical power before hitting the home stretch.