Wednesday, 10 January 2018

You Should See This: In A Valley Of Violence (2016)


What’s It All About?
Having deserted the Army, Paul (Ethan Hawke) is making his way to Mexico. He cuts through a town called Denton, where Mary-Ann (Taissa Farmiga), a young woman who helps run the hotel, takes a shine to him and he makes an enemy of and humiliates local troublemaker Gilly (James Ransone), who also happens to be the son of the town marshal (John Travolta). After he’s run out of town, Gilly and his friends show up for revenge, killing Paul’s beloved dog and leaving him for dead. But Paul’s not dead, and that’s not good for Gilly.

You Should See It Because
I approached this film with a certain amount of trepidation. For a while I had been hearing effusive praise for Ti West’s earlier films, House Of The Devil and The Innkeepers, both of which I found grindingly tedious. I had warmed a little more to his Jonestown inspired The Sacrament, but still wasn’t persuaded that he was the great force in genre cinema that some seemed to consider him. In A Valley Of Violence doesn’t magically make me a fan of West’s earlier work, but to my mind it does see him mastering what I think he’s been trying to do for some time; straddling the line between honest homage, tongue in cheek tribute and making his own distinct entry in genres he loves. In that way this is both his Western (it looks especially to the Man With No Name films and High Plains Drifter) and to some degree his action film (the story, though this may be a coincidence, plays much like John Wick reset in the old West).

There are plenty of reasons that you should see In A Valley Of Violence but the first and most compelling, as it is for so many of the films he’s in, is Ethan Hawke. Over the past few years Hawke has moved increasingly into genre cinema and, while there have been duds like Getaway and 24 Hours To Live, he often manages to find interesting ideas and roles within a genre space. In this way Hawke’s a perfect leading man for West, and ideally cast as the disillusioned soldier who has seen too much blood and killed too many men. Initially, when Paul talks  (mostly to his dog) about his wife, we assume that she died or was killed. Later on, we learn that it is his shame at the man he’s become that keeps him from going back to her, and it’s touches like this in West’s writing and Hawke’s performance that lend Paul some emotional depth, which could easily have gone missing, especially in the bloody second half of the film. The world-weariness of Paul comes through in everything Hawke does here. It’s in the way he talks; a gravelly sound that has to be pulled from him and is often more a grunt than a word, but it’s also in the way he metes out violence. Paul’s violence, his vengeance for his dog, feels like something he’s obliged to do. There’s no pleasure in it, no victory. Violence is unpleasant, he seems to think, but sometimes it’s the principal of the thing.

Ti West seems to favour a slow burn approach to pacing his films. For me he took this to painful extremes with House Of The Devil and The Innkeepers, but here I felt that he was building to something. Nothing much happens for some time during the first scene in the saloon in Denton, but we’re getting a sense of the place of all the characters in the town: Gilly the one who is likely to fly off the handle, the one his friends look to for both guidance and permission. All the while, Hawke sits at the bar, trying not to be noticed, hoping he won’t be drawn into something. West draws tension from Hawke’s stillness in this and other scenes, contrasting it with Ransone’s increasingly nervous energy. This translates to the second half, an extended sequence that sees Paul hunting down the three men that helped Gilly kill his dog (one of them, almost inevitably, played by Larry Fessenden) while the marshal and his men try to gain the upper hand. West allows this to play out with a mix of humour and tension. Rather than exploding in a barrage of bullets he keeps the gunshots rare, the characters have to choose their moments to fire, which makes each more effective, both within the story and in the effect it has on us. 

The time that West takes setting up the town pays off in the action of the second half because he gives us a real sense of place. The space is well established and the confrontations often unfold in wider shots, giving us a clear sense of the spatial relationships in the action. West is clearly enjoying himself when he’s paying explicit tribute to the westerns he loves (the animated titles, for instance, riff brilliantly on the Man With No Name trilogy) but he’s also capable of finding many striking images of his own, especially as we see Hawke and Travolta move around the town, looking for a way to get the drop on each other.

For all of this tension and violence, In A Valley Of Violence also has a vein of humour running through it from the opening scenes of Burn Gorman’s drunk travelling priest to the climax with Gilly growing ever more frustrated, stuck in a hotel room protecting his fiance (Karen Gillan, THIS close to overplaying) and her sister (Farmiga). However, it’s John Travolta and his interplay with Hawke during the long gunfight that provides most of the laughs here. Travolta is clearly relishing this part. He plays the marshal as though he’s a distant relative of Broken Arrow’s Vic Deakins with a very stupid and disappointing son, whose messes he is well used to cleaning up. Travolta has always been a bit of a ham, and his is one of the bigger performances here, but set against Hawke’s much more inheld work it makes for an interesting contrast, and Travolta seems more engaged here than he has for years. 

The humour is one of the chinks of light that shines through this dark tale, the other is Taissa Farmiga. Farmiga, as I mentioned in this series’ piece on The Final Girls, is a wonderful actress who hasn’t yet had the project that has propelled her into the public consciousness in the same way as her sister Vera (it’s coming, she’s the lead in the next Conjuring prequel). As Mary-Ann, Farmiga is the one friendly face Paul encounters in the town, she’s bubbly, enthusiastic, welcoming and instantly drawn to both Paul and his dog. There are two sides to this; one is that Mary-Ann is exactly the kind of upbeat, sweet-natured, person we see but, on the other hand, Farmiga plays her with just a hint of desperation. For me, there’s a sense that Paul might not be the first man passing through that she’s tried to get to take her away from all this or, if he is, it’s because he is literally the first man to have passed through Denton in months. None of that is stated, but it’s there just behind Farmiga’s outwardly warm performance, especially in the scene between her and Hawke just before he goes back to Denton to find Gilly.

In A Valley Of Violence strikes me as the film that Ti West has been striving to make for years, this time his slow burn pacing really works, set against black humour, a love of genre and a clutch of excellent performances, all of which are very different in tone but somehow gel into an interesting whole. West has been working in TV since this film, but I’m genuinely interested to see where he goes next and whether he can take his particular style into yet another genre.

How Can You See It?
All Blu Ray versions are the same, coming with just a making of featurette in terms of extras, but delivering an excellent image and sound.

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