PLOT: A man with nothing to lose rides into a small town where he quickly gets on the wrong side of the marshal and his violent son.
REVIEW: There was a certain point early on in IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE where I thought, "If this movie didn't have the dog it would be a real shame." The dog, an impressive mutt named Abby that tags along with a loner (Ethan Hawke) who rides into a squalid little town called Denton, steals every scene she's in; whether it's the funny way she covers her eyes or rolls herself in a blanket, Abby seems to be outacting Hawke and everyone else every step of the way. The movie's sets were mostly unconvincing and the atmosphere of the thing was more high-end thesis project than gritty western. But that dog was making it watchable.
Eventually, however, VALLEY won me over, with or without the dog. Mostly. It never actually feels like a real movie in a way that's hard to describe, but there's a gonzo sense of humor that reveals itself in the second half that becomes infectious. I didn't expect VALLEY was going to be aiming for laughs during its early passages, but I'm sure glad it did.
Hawke stars as Paul, one of those western anti-heroes with a dark past and nothing to his name save for Abby and his horse, Lady. One day during his aimless travels, Paul enters Denton, a sad little town made up of about ten shoddy buildings and perhaps 20 residents. (There might be more but we never see over a dozen people at any given time.) Denton is under the thumb of a corrupt Marshal (John Travolta) and his volatile son, Gilly (James Ransone), and Paul - who naturally doesn't want any trouble - is going to walk right into it thanks to these two and the small gang of creeps they call friends.
Early on, director Ti West appears uncertain how to handle this material or decide upon a tone that fits, and it initially seems as if the actors aren't going to help him. Hawke seems bored by the whole thing, maybe because he's miscast. He just doesn't have the grizzled loner look required for such a role. But Travolta and Ransone play it up grand, the former relishing his foreboding dialogue, the latter gnawing on scenery with every vile word. Also participating with some intense overacting are Taissa Farmiga and Karen Gillan, playing a pair of loud sisters who are smack in the middle of the boys' macho confrontations. Save for Hawke, the cast is frequently going big with their performances, I assume by design, and the film's first act ends up being a little ridiculous. (Hell, even the dog is over the top.)
But when things take a weird turn for the comedic, it's like the tone of the movie has finally caught up with what the actors have been doing. Startlingly, IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE reveals itself to be a comedy. One with flying bullets and bloody bodies, but a comedy nonetheless. (This is an issue I expect to be debated quite a bit when more people get a look at it.) The third act is a madcap showdown between Paul and the baddies, with lots of running around and shooting and yelling and funny wordplay. One character's death is one of my favorite moments in any movie this year.
On the technical side of things, IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE can be pretty rough. Denton doesn't look like a real town people live in but rather a series of prop exteriors. The cinematography isn't really vivid enough to get us any deeper into this world, either. This, combined with the genuinely overcooked performances, lends the film an air of theatricality that you eventually get used to; I never felt lost in the narrative, it always looked like actors on a set playing cowboys.
That said, when taken on its own terms, VALLEY still entertains. West's hardboiled dialogue combined with actors swinging for the fences eventually trumps the artificial nature of the piece. Travolta in particular is really fun to watch, and Ransone must have lost about 10 pounds thanks to all the spittle and sweat that flies off him while he goes bonkers. I even warmed up to Farmiga and Gillan's flamboyant turns. And did I mention that dog? If there's a Best Supporting Animal Oscar category introduced this year, the race has already been decided.