Ti West's 'In A Valley Of Violence' Takes You To The Weird, Weird West [SXSW Review]

The first thing you notice about In a Valley of Violence is that it doesn't feel like a typical Ti West film. His trademark slow-burn menace is nowhere to be found and his low-key comedy, which he used to punctuate tension in films like The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers, has undergone a transformation. This is the first West film that isn't the cinematic equivalent of being placed in a pot of water and not realizing that the water is boiling until it's too late – it's broader, more straightforward, and, on paper, a fairly typical revenge western.

Until's it's not. In a Valley of Violence is one weird movie, an experience that grabs your attention with its eccentricities before losing you with its lack of focus. It's not a deadeye pistol shot from a gunslinger, but a wild shot from a scattergun. Yeah, it still hits its target, but you wish the aim was a little more true.

By tackling a western, West (who also wrote and edited the film) is playing in familiar territory – no genre affords a filmmaker a more reliable stable of tropes and character types than this one. But he isn't working in the area of John Ford and John Wayne. West's aesthetic choices are less grand and adventurous and more skeevy and threadbare. In a Valley of Violence has more in common with the grungy, low-budget spaghetti westerns of the '60s than with Hollywood output. West's decision to seemingly emulate this style is a mixed bag: you appreciate what he's going for, but it doesn't necessarily make for a more satisfying movie. He plays all of the right notes, but he's picked up the wrong instrument.

The plot could have been plucked out of a hundred different westerns. A lone wanderer (Ethan Hawke) and his loyal dog ride into the isolated town of Denton. Words, and eventually blows, are traded with the local ruffian (James Ransone). Our hero is pushed too far and then the guns come out and the bodies start to hit the sand. You know the drill.

First things first: that dog is amazing and that is not some kind of dumb joke or a slight against the actors in the film. More importantly, everyone involved in the film knows that she's amazing, letting her perform all kinds of tricks (both subtle and major) and allowing her all of the best reaction shots. In a movie where many of the characters are walking cartoons, this damn dog steals the show.

The human cast is very silly across the board and it seems to be by design. As the surprisingly level-headed marshal who finds himself forced to deal with a vengeful gunslinger, John Travolta finds a pitch-perfect blend of camp of honest exasperation. He's a silly character and you can see Travolta's teethmarks on the scenery, but he fits the heightened, overly dramatic tone of the film more than anyone else. Hawke is a serviceable hero, all glowering and gritted teeth, and the small army of recognizable character actors who back him up (including Burn Gorman, Larry Fessenden, and Toby Huss) play broad, sneer-worthy baddies with the appropriate level of vicious glee. As the cowardly lead villain o the film, Ransone is a hoot, playing the kind of disgusting scoundrel you want to see pumped full of lead.

Unfortunately, the women are left high and dry. Taissa Farmiga and Karen Gillan are both fine and game actresses, but their performances are so broad and silly that they simply cannot carry the dramatic weight the film asks of them in the back half. In fact, that's the biggest problem with the film: it's knowingly artificial in every way.

That's a dangerous tightrope to walk. In a Valley of Violence is theatrical in every sense of the word: actors perform for the back row and the entire world of the film feels deliberately artificial. It doesn't help that this is West's ugliest film by a country mile, lacking the command of mood that he's showcased in previous films. The whole film is washed out and bare, never trying to hide the fact that it's been shot on a pre-existing ghost town that looks like it's barely been set-dressed. This is a film of people playing dress-up.

And that has to be intentional. West and his cast and crew have composed a love letter to a specific kind of schlock and the results are just plain weird. The big performances, the straightforward plot, and the gory violence of the climax all feel like familiar seasonings in a big bowl of spaghetti western – we're just not used to seeing these elements in play today, where the average western tends to bend over backwards toward respectability. In a Valley of Violence is at its best when it's being funny and it can be really, really funny. When the film reaches its climax and the blood starts to gush and the familiar story goes off the rails in a spectacular fashion, you can really see what West was going for. This is more pastiche than parody, which makes the humor harder to pin down. The film wants you to smirk at every scene, even as the the excellent musical score reminds you of other, better films in the genre.

A certain brand of cinephile is going to love the hell out of In a Valley of Violence and watching West stretch his directorial muscles in an entirely new direction is exciting. And yet, this feels like a lark for everyone involved, a big goof that everyone involved wanted to get out of their systems. It's too weird to ignore, but also too unfocused to adore.

/Film rating: 6/10