Noted horror director Ti West (“The Innkeepers,” “The House of the Devil”) trades in one genre for another in “In a Valley of Violence,” a straight-up Western that hits its target by aiming low.
West, who also wrote the film, isn’t going for any kind of revisionist statement here, no comment on the state of the nation through the lens of the Old West, nothing like that. Instead he is content to play it straight, the loner good guy vs. a dusty town full of bad guys — stupid bad guys at that.
Oh, and never, ever mess with a man’s dog: Did Keanu Reeves teach us nothing in “John Wick?”
Paul (Ethan Hawke, making it a spurs-and-saddle season with this and “The Magnificent Seven”) is drifting toward Mexico, attempting to leave a mysterious past behind. His only companion is his dog, Jumpy. His path leads him to Denton, Texas, a broken-down town where most all of the decent folks have long since high-tailed it for more hospitable territory. Like, probably, the middle of a barren desert. At least there you wouldn’t have Gilly (James Ransone) to contend with.
Gilly is your typical loud-mouth bully, overcompensating for who-knows-what shortcomings with boasts and threats issued toward anyone within earshot. That now includes Paul, who has wandered into the town saloon for water — a glass for him, a bowl for Jumpy. Gilly mouths off and challenges Paul to a fight, which ends with one punch and Gilly in a bloody heap.
The marshal, played with dopey glee by John Travolta (!), gets involved. He has to: Gilly is his son. He recognizes Paul as a fellow veteran of the Civil War and knows Gilly is trouble, so he sends Paul on his way. But that’s not enough for the moronic, violent Gilly, who gathers the local toadies and attacks Paul and Jumpy when they’ve camped out for the night not too far off.
Vengeance will follow.
And not much else. Paul swears he’ll kill every last one of the men who did him wrong, and the rest of the movie consists of him attempting to make good on his word.
Except, happily, a few exchanges with Mary Anne (Taissa Farmiga), who runs a hotel with her sister, Ellen (Karen Gillan). Ellen is a surly sort, engaged to Gilly and a big fan of fights — the kind that Gilly is used to winning, anyway.
Mary Anne is something else. Her husband ran off — she’s all of 16 — and she, nearly alone among the Denton residents, seems to know that she’s missing something bigger in the world beyond fat drunks who demand baths and shaves. And she knows that Paul, in some way, represents that world. She talks a mile a minute, and while Paul acknowledges that he’s old enough to be her father, he can’t help but be charmed by her. (Neither can we; Farmiga is terrific.)
Hawke is good as Paul — he seems born to play creaky cowboys who just want, more than anything else, to be left alone. Travolta has a blast as the lawman. Farmiga is the best of the bunch, but Ransone and Gillan are good, too (the dog, by the way, is fantastic).
But what makes “In a Valley of Violence” a notch better than a simple genre exercise is West’s sense of fun. Occasionally he overindulges it, but it serves the film well. Good for him for branching out. That’s not a plea to try romantic comedies next, but an acknowledgment that he can do more than horror — though he does it well enough that a return would be welcome, too.
(West will appear at the 7 and 9:45 p.m. Friday shows at the Music Box.)
Bill Goodykoontz, USA TODAY Network
Focus World presents a film written and directed by Ti West. Rated R (for language and violence). Running time: 104 minutes. Opens Friday at the Music Box Theatre and on demand.