Friday, October 21, 2016

In Theaters/On VOD: IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE (2016)

(US - 2016)

Written and directed by Ti West. Cast: Ethan Hawke, John Travolta, Karen Gillan, Taissa Farmiga, James Ransone, Burn Gorman, Toby Huss, Larry Fessenden, Tommy Nohilly, K. Harrison Sweeney, Jumpy. (R, 103 mins)

IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE is a welcome departure for cult horror director Ti West, the perpetually overrated wunderkind so coddled by bloggers and fanboy scenesters that you'd swear the Make-a-Wish Foundation was bankrolling him. West's slow-burn aesthetic has resulted in exactly one good film--his 2009 retro '80s breakthrough THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL--and a lot of nothing else, regardless of how many accolades are bestowed upon 2011's inexplicably praised THE INNKEEPERS and 2014's pointless modern-day Jonestown Massacre redux THE SACRAMENT (he also contributed segments to V/H/S and THE ABCs OF DEATH). West branches out with the Blumhouse-produced IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE, a western shot two years ago but only now getting a VOD dumping through Universal's Focus World division, which started out handling foreign and arthouse titles, but has since become their de facto on-demand division. That's a shame, because this is West's most enjoyable, accessible, and accomplished film to date. Like THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL, it's heavy on homage, but in abandoning the slow burn technique that he frankly ran into the ground in his subsequent films, and choosing to tell a no-bullshit, meat-and-potatoes western revenge saga, he proves himself an exemplary genre craftsman instead of the one-trick-pony that his past films seemed to indicate.

From its opening credits that emulate the spaghetti westerns of the Sergios Leone and Corbucci to the music cues that recall the maestro Ennio Morricone, IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE makes it clear from the start that it's wearing its heart on its sleeve and isn't interested in blazing new trails. That's OK, because a good revenge story well told is never not satisfying. In a convincing, committed performance, Ethan Hawke is Paul, a post-Civil War Army deserter trying to make his way to Mexico with his loyal canine companion Abby (played by border collie/blue heeler mix Jumpy in one of the most remarkable animal performances in recent memory). He makes the fateful decision of taking a shortcut through Denton, a once-thriving mining town that's fallen on hard times and is virtually abandoned except for a general store, a saloon, and a hotel with no guests. Stopping in the saloon to get some water for Abby and minding his own business, Paul is harassed by deputy marshal and alpha-male loudmouth Gilly Martin (Hawke's SINISTER co-star James Ransone), a sniveling bully who's putting on a tough-guy act for his trio of sycophantic buddies, Harris (Toby Huss), Tubby (Tommy Nohilly), and Roy (the inevitable Larry Fessenden). For no reason whatsoever, Gilly starts an argument with Paul and challenges him to a fight in the street, calling all the remaining townsfolk out to witness a beatdown. Additional cheerleading and egging-on is provided by his adoring fiancee Ellen (Karen Gillan), who runs the hotel with her 16-year-old sister Mary Anne (Taissa Farmiga), the child-bride of a local who went off to find work and is clearly not coming back for her. Gilly talks (and talks and talks) a big game but promptly gets knocked on his ass with one punch by Paul, who just wants to stock up on necessities at the general store, take a bath at the hotel, and be on his way. He's met by Denton's one-legged marshal, Clyde Martin (John Travolta), who's just returned home and was informed by his deputy--his son--that there's a troublemaker in town. Clyde can tell from Paul's demeanor and his weapons that he's a military man and concludes that he's a deserter. Though he should turn him in, he doesn't want any trouble in Denton and doesn't doubt for a moment that the fight was started by his idiot son. Clyde lets Paul go under the condition that he never return to Denton and the situation between the two of them ends peacefully and amicably. Of course, Gilly isn't the type of man-child to let go of being humiliated in front of everyone, so he and his boys follow Paul and Abby into the desert that night and ambush them while they're asleep. Gilly kills Abby and the others throw Paul off a cliff and assume he's dead.

What follows is a classic western resurrection, with the presumed-dead Paul, already filled with regret over deserting both the Army and his familly, making his way back to town, seething with rage and obsessed with avenging Abby's senseless murder. It certainly sounds like JOHN WICK reimagined as a western, but West had this in production several months before that was released. Put in a position where he has to take on the town, Paul finds just one ally in Mary Anne and lets no one stand in his way, and even though he sympathizes with Paul and blames his son for causing the situation to escalate ("You think because you got a prick and a pistol that you can just go around killin' people?!" he yells), he feels an obligation to protect Denton and a fatherly duty to look out for his son, regardless of how stupid he may be. Hawke is a gritty hero and Ransone makes a loathsome villain you'll love to hate, but thanks to Jumpy (is it possible for a dog to get a Best Supporting Actor nomination?), Travolta can only be the second best scene-stealer here, having a blast channeling his inner Jeff Bridges and hobbling around on a wooden leg. Whether he'd dispensing sage advice or dropping his cane to beat some sense into Gilly, then telling someone "Gimme that cane!" and using it to beat Gilly some more, Travolta dives into this and turns in his best work in years. West also invests the film with generous helpings of dark and quirky humor, whether it's Tubby finally having enough of everyone's relentless fat-shaming or Marshal Clyde needing to keep his badge in his pocket since the pin broke off long ago, a sure indication of Denton's sorry financial condition. There's a trend in today's westerns to subvert genre expectations, as evidenced by S. Craig Zahler's brilliant western-turned-horror film BONE TOMAHAWK and Quentin Tarantino's western-as-drawing room mystery THE HATEFUL EIGHT, but IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE avoids the kind of snark and irony that are pitfalls for these sorts of movies, never pretending to be anything other than what it is--a fast-paced, straightforward revenge saga with strong characters, solid performances, and a riveting story. Why is this being relegated to VOD and just a few theaters? This could've been a hit. Look for this one to have a long, healthy word-of-mouth life on steaming and cable. It's the best action genre offering since the similarly VOD-dumped BLOOD FATHER.

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