No more than a pure unadultered leap right into the excesses of the genre.
In a Valley of Violence is a revenge-driven shoot-‘em-up Western with enough gaping plot holes to ensure no viewer takes it too seriously. This is basic route genre filmmaking, with an ambivalently “good” protagonist, a setting pregnant with danger, bad guys (in black hats, no less) and a series of violent escalations that creates a descent into pure anarchic bloodletting.
Writer-director-editor Ti West, who has previously specialized in horror movies, has no pretensions for art or historical homage. Despite near-references to the iconic threshold shot of The Searchers, there are no John Ford vistas (or hateful racial politics, for that matter). The only genre-specific stylization is in credit sequences that suggest spaghetti Westerns. West is clear: this is a straightforward ride that gets its characters in violent engagements as efficiently as possible.
Paul (Ethan Hawke) is a deserter from the cavalry escaping the killing fields of the U.S. genocide against the Cheyenne. With his horse and his dog, he beats an arrow-straight path to Mexico. His complicated past is obliquely referenced in social interactions and in one horribly-executed dream-sequence/flashback, giving just enough information to allow Paul to embody the ideal troubled hero. His dog Abbie is the charismatic heart of the film, but her high regard for Paul makes the audience pull for him, too.
Marooned in the desert, Paul is forced to pass through the foreboding soon-to-be ghost town of Denton, Texas. Once a silver mining boomtown, Denton is populated only by a violence-adverse Marshall (John Travolta), his sneering brat of a son and deputy (of course!) Gilly (James Ransone), Gilly’s dunderheaded cronies, two comely sister-hoteliers and a handful of spare characters.
Alter arriving in town, Paul refuses to pay lip service to Gilly’s empty braggadocio, which leads to fisticuffs and the deputy’s public embarrassment. The Marshall pleads for Paul to leave town and vows that no harm will befall him. In one of the more glaring of the numerous plot holes, Paul, who seems savvy enough to survive his arduous solo trek, takes the Marshall’s word for it. Unfortunately, Gilly and his chums ambush Paul just outside town, kill his dog Abbie and leave Paul for dead.
Of course, Paul isn’t dead, and returns to Denton for vengeance, John Wick style. Paul’s singular quest is aided by the younger of the hotelier-sisters, Mary Anne (Taissa Farmiga) (her older sister Ellen (Karen Gillan) is betrothed to Gilly). The ensuing violence is spectacular, featuring surprising ambushes, novel staging practices and even a brutal episode of boot-and-spur pugilism.
The movie has comic relief but no emotional depth, and you know how it’s going to end from Paul’s conversation with his dog when the travelers first see Denton. All of the suspense is in the means, rather than the ends. In a Valley of Violence doesn’t aim for a meta-genre deconstruction of the revenge thriller like Chan-wook Park’s Vengeance trilogy. This is no more than a pure unadultered leap right into the excesses of the genre.