A tentativeness courses through Ti West’s films. Watching them, one often feels as if the filmmaker’s approaching a boundary—separating genre trope from searing idiosyncrasy—that he doesn’t always manage to cross. West crossed this line in Trigger Man and, fitfully, in The Sacrament, which climaxed with an unsettlingly intimate staging of a Jonestown-like mass poisoning that calls into question the invasiveness of the film’s very formality. In these moments, West’s reverence for genre filmmaking merged with his gift for behavioral portraiture, fashioning a horror film that felt contemporary in its concern with media as offering only an illusion of “all access” to its subjects.
In a Valley of Violence communicates a similarly sporadic sense of violation—of pastiche unpredictably giving way to a raw and primordially intimate emotional realm. As always, West grooves on tonal discombobulation. Portions of this film, such as the hijinks at a hotel, suggest tedious parody, with modern actors playing stock period roles that appear to mean little to them. But other scenes are played dead seriously, informed with a startling gravity that’s reminiscent of the best moments of Trigger Man, The House of the Devil, and The Sacrament. In this fascinating juxtaposition, self-conscious genre gamesmanship wrestles with an authentic poetry of violence.
In a Valley of Violence finds West trading the horror genre in for the western, mixing a portion of its iconography, by collective way of John Ford, Samuel Fuller, and Sergio Leone, with comic flakiness that informs narrative tradition with behavioral quirk. When an obligatorily mysterious loner, Paul (Ethan Hawke), stops off at a bar in a town called Denton, he has an exchange with a bartender that’s familiar to the opening acts of many westerns, in which the latter voices portentous suspicion of strangers. Except that Paul asks the bartender for water in a bowl, rather than liquor, to which the bartender repeats, “Water. In a bowl?” And the man says so with a dry incredulity that’s hilarious considering the scene’s heightened macho atmosphere.
The water is for Paul’s dog, who’s so adorable that you know he won’t make it to the end credits. The dog also brings to mind a famous scene in Yojimbo, and Jeff Grace’s alternatingly cheeky and terrifying score (a combination that encapsulates the film’s tonal divide) suggests Ennio Morricone’s work on the “Dollars” trilogy. But In a Valley of Violence isn’t weighed down with in-jokes. It’s mostly a “straight” western, in which West inflates a standard subplot of the genre—the bar fight an outsider has with a local loudmouth—to the status of center-ring narrative. As with all of West’s prior films, one could write the entire plot on the head of a pin, which leaves the filmmaker and his cast room to fill in each scene with mood and texture.
Per his wont, West fetishizes build-up over payoff, which, in this stylized, hermetic western setting, is reminiscent of the recent films of Quentin Tarantino, though West values an economy that Tarantino has long and regretfully abandoned. West builds a major set piece out of Paul lingering outside a bathroom as Grace’s music swells, waiting to kill a foe who’s relaxing in a tub of hot, soapy water. The killing itself is fleetly, brutally staged, but nearly beside the point. It’s the waiting outside the door that puts us mentally and emotionally in the situation, inviting our empathy and giving us time to consider the gravity of murder, rather than mindlessly regarding dozens of simulated killings as a matter of course.
One person getting killed is always more effective and startling than a hundred, or even 10, because intimacy easily gives way to abstraction with increasing numbers—an aesthetic truth, seemingly lost on most filmmakers, that West has always understood. Similarly, Denton is vividly imperiled as a faded mining town because it’s shown to be made up of something like a dozen people and existing along a route toward Mexico that could just as easily have been established as a halfway point between hell and nowhere. The set is even stripped, made up of the hotel in the center of a square, a bar, a goods shop, a stable, and a few other placeholder structures that all dot a landscape so classically western it could grace a Zane Grey or early Elmore Leonard novel. The climax involves one guy squaring off against four others, with another person pulled between both parties, rather than featuring a whole armada of requisitely vicious-looking extras. These sorts of differences matter greatly to West’s brand of artisanal genre craftsmanship.
West’s methodical austerity yields in this film the most powerful passages of his career, particularly between Paul and his dog. Hawkes’s earnestness with the animal is unguarded and greatly touching; the actor gives one of the best performances of his career by embracing West’s succinct directness, using his sensitivity to point up Paul’s alien-ness among a group of wannabe outlaws. John Travolta appears as a surprisingly not-as-corrupt-as-usual marshal, who has a great scene in which he pontificates Paul’s history as an AWOL member of a vicious Native American extermination squad.
The marshal’s unexpected kinship with Paul springs from a wooden leg, which Travolta knocks on with haunting tentativeness. The indication of this rapport is clear: These are men for whom violence is a material reality, rather than the myth-stoking fantasy it embodies for the callow villains. Normally a maximalist showboat, Travolta also more or less adheres to a poignant less-is-more formalism, rediscovering his gift for spontaneous depth of feeling. Paul and the Marshall’s duet paves the way for a campfire assault that has the mythical grandeur of a major western, the fire reaching up into the black skies as men wreak senseless cruelty upon Paul and his companion.
It’s impossible to watch a film about a deserted, economically barren, once prosperous American town, which is overrun with developmentally arrested, gun-happy crazies who disrupt an unlikely union between experienced men of opposing sides, and not consider the political debates raging through this country with more ferocity than ever in the wake of the recent Orlando massacre. Particularly over the Republican Party’s collusion with the N.R.A. to sate under-educated voters who feel their opportunities are being leached away by outsiders, who assume they must “hunt” or “defend” themselves with weapons designed for mass warfare.
This association gains explicit metaphoric agency when Paul and the marshal futilely attempt to reconcile as a gunfight rages off and on until finally burning itself out and entirely changing the constitution of this society’s leadership in the process, which, it’s indicated, will spur yet another round of corruption that will almost certainly meet a similar end. Even the subtleties of the title resonate, suggesting just a pocket of violence in an expansive, never-entirely-governed charnel house containing multitudes.
BAMcinemaFest runs from June 15—26.