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A bloody Western about a deadly man who’s sworn off violence until his beloved dog is threatened, Ti West’s In a Valley of Violence plays like a grim, Eastwood-style genre revival before some conspicuous Tarantino-influenced humor infects its climactic showdown. Ethan Hawke is excellent as the gunslinger in question, a cavalryman hoping to escape his shameful past in Mexico; the actor should draw attention to a picture whose appeal is similar to that of Bone Tomahawk, which bowed here at October’s Fantastic Fest.
Hawke’s Paul is en route to Mexico when he stops in tiny Denton to get water for himself and his collie, Abbie. (Though it borrows the name of a real Texas town, the production’s New Mexico location is much more interesting terrain than the North Texas plains.) It’s a “town run by sinners,” he is warned, and it takes little time for one to seek him out: Local blowhard Gilly (James Ransone) picks a fight with Paul and gets his lights knocked out. Unfortunately, Gilly is the son of the local marshal (John Travolta), and the chip on his shoulder ensures he’ll come looking for payback with friends.
Before getting run out of town, Paul is befriended by Mary-Anne (Taissa Farmiga, charismatic as usual), an excitable innkeeper’s daughter longing to escape this abandoned mining town. And when he is ambushed out in the country, left for dead, and feels forced to seek revenge, she’s the only one on his side.
Up to this point the picture plays things straight, sticking closely to genre conventions without feeling stale. In solo scenes, Paul maintains an endearing one-sided dialogue with Abbie; the dog’s performance (watch as she wraps herself up in a blanket by the campfire!) supplies most of the first half’s light moments.
But once Paul returns to this one-street town with vengeance on his mind, West can’t help milking the tension for a touch more nervous laughter than the movie demands. Travolta, a bad match for his role, plays the beleaguered sensible man trying to keep his hothead son and assorted flunkies safe; heaven help him, he actually tries to talk Paul out of killing them. Ransone, whose character is a little too dumb to give the actor room to stretch, is forced to shout at womenfolk as he holes up in a room waiting for Daddy to fix things. Petty sniping distracts somewhat from the well-staged action, and a three-way duel in the middle of a dusty street risks insulting the drama building up to it. The pic recovers, though, achieving some catharsis in a final battle where emotion and action line up perfectly.
Venue: South by Southwest Film Festival (Headliners)
Distributor: Focus World
Production company: Blumhouse Production
Cast: Ethan Hawke, Taissa Farmiga, Jason Ransone, Karen Gillan, John Travolta, Toby Huss, Tommy Nohilly, Larry Fessenden, Bur Gorman
Director-screenwriter-editor: Ti West
Producers: Jason Blum, Jacob Jaffke, Peter Phok
Executive producers: Alix Taylor, Jeanette Volturno-Brill, Ti West
Director of photography: Eric Robbins
Production designer: Jade Healy
Costume designer: Malgosia Turzanska
Composer: Jeff Grace
Casting director: Terri Taylor
Not rated, 103 minutes
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