(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.
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.