Starring: Ethan Hawke, John Travolta, Taissa Farmiga
Director: Ti West
Mood: If you want to watch a take on the classic Spaghetti Western that’s equal parts good, bad and ugly and most of the good is Ethan Hawke.
“I know I promised you that I was done killing, but I think I’m gonna have to break that promise.”
Paul (Ethan Hawke)
I had to watch In a Valley of Violence twice. The first time I watched it, I couldn’t figure out how the heck to write this review. I definitely don’t hate it – I LOVE some parts of it. But others are terrible. So how much do the weak parts impact the overall quality and enjoyment of the movie?
After sitting on it for a couple of days I couldn’t even remember the finer details, so I had to watch it again.
Here’s the challenge: In a Valley of Violence is kind of like two movies awkwardly sharing the same set and screen time.
- Ethan Hawke, John Travolta, and Taissa Farmiga star in a f*cking phenomenal revenge Western about a Civil War soldier with severe PTSD, whose only happiness is his dog
- Everybody else is overacting their way through a Spaghetti Western that could have been great if it leaned way harder into its humour and violence
I had read a bunch of negative reviews before I watched this movie. I also read a bunch of highly favourable ones. My review is a hybrid, and probably just confusing enough to make you watch it and decide for yourself.
In a Valley of Violence begins with a drifter named Paul (Ethan Hawke) and his dog making their way to Mexico. A few days’ ride from the border, he comes upon a drunk priest (Burn Gorman) who tries to rob him. The first violent scene takes place, and Paul rides away unharmed.
But when he stops in a town for supplies, Paul is antagonized into punching out a loud-mouthed bully named Gilly (James Ransome), who turns out to be the son of the town marshal (John Travolta). Gilly’s ego demands justice. And so begins the violent chain of events that makes up the entire second half of In a Valley of Violence.
Now, I love me some Ethan Hawke Westerns (The Kid, The Magnificent Seven), so I was excited to see what he would do here. And Hawke does not disappoint.
His character is achingly haunted and broken. He takes you on an emotional roller coaster, sinking so far into his character’s trauma that you want to yank him out of the movie and give him a hug. But Hawke can also radiate the deadly intensity of a coiled rattlesnake, and you know when Paul snaps there’s gonna be a body count.
I think my trouble with In a Valley of Violence is that it’s meant to be a playfully savage Spaghetti Western:
- It’s super low-budget
- There’s a mysterious drifter who only speaks his name once
- He’s on his way to Mexico
- There’s an oppressed town under the rule of messy, violent bad guys
- The dialogue is not meant to be taken seriously
- The soundtrack is thoroughly Spaghetti Western
- And of course, there’s a priest riding a mule
But there’s NOTHING playful about Hawke’s performance. He’s not just being the straight man – he’s delivering a layered Western antihero, reminiscent of his role in The Magnificent Seven. And unfortunately, that makes everyone around him look ridiculous.
James Ransome’s belligerent monologues as Gilly are at times so f*cking bad that I got up and pretended to get something from the kitchen just to avoid watching. I get that he and Karen Gillian (who plays Gilly’s fiancé, Ellen) were not trying to be serious. But their performances feel more like high school theatre.
John Travolta is fantastic as Marshal. It’s a solid piece of Western character work, and an enjoyable one to boot. But the way his role is written doesn’t actually work with his purpose in the movie – the villain.
Marshal is supposed to be this powerful bad man that has everyone hiding indoors. Yet almost everything Marshal says is actually logical and fair. He’s not particularly cruel or unjust in any of his scenes. In fact, he makes perfect sense, even when he’s beating the pants off his obnoxious son with a cane. Maybe if you got more of Marshal’s backstory, or saw some bullying interactions with townsfolk, he’d feel more like a bad boss.
Taissa Farmiga pairs well with Hawke, delivering a fresh female character in the rebellious but charming chatterbox Mary-Anne.
And Burn Gorman deserves recognition as the most Spaghetti Western performance of them all. His priest is equal parts weather-worn charlatan and dry-witted man of God, and Gorman finds the perfect rhythm of comedy and violence.
That right there is where the rest of In a Valley of Violence fails to live up to its promise. It’s not funny enough to be cheesy in its low-budgetness, but not completely serious either. And the violence, while thrilling and deliciously drawn-out, could have gone further.
The movie’s unclear motivation is most evident in the dialogue. Even the best characters often do nonsensical things that don’t fit with their place in the story.
- Marshal is intelligent and shrewd, warning henchmen to stay away from the windows, yet walks right out into the open and stands there while Paul is firing on someone
- Paul has this amazing partnership with his dog, but then when she barks at danger in the night his first instinct is not to trust her proven awareness, instead telling her to be quiet
- The henchmen get weird, unnecessary moments of redemption
In a Valley of Violence does deliver plenty of Western thrills. Like I said, I loved lots of things about this movie! But there’s also bad acting, and confusing writing. It’s not my favourite, I don’t hate it, and certain aspects are done extremely well. That’s all I can come up with to say about it.
However, it’s worth a watch just for Ethan Hawke and the dog – holy shit, is that a talented pooch. My dog doesn’t even come when he’s called, meanwhile Jumpy has a growing filmography on IMDb.
If you want to share your opinion on whether it’s a hit or a miss, join the I Review Westerns Facebook group. Yeah, I have a group now. I’m cool like that.