Notable Festivals: SXSW
With an enviable body of well-crafted and warmly-received horror features under his belt, director Ti West was no doubt eager to show the cinematic community what else he could do. He had an idea for a western that drew inspiration from classic genre touchstones like HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER (1973), as well as recent action pictures like JOHN WICK (2014). In short order, he managed to secure the participation of producer Jason Blum, whose production company, Blumhouse Pictures, had carved out a comfortable niche for itself in microbudget genre features and television shows– one of which, SOUTH OF HELL, West had recently directed an episode of. Blum’s involvement also enabled access to actor Ethan Hawke, who had a collaborative relationship with Blum thanks to prior indie hits like THE PURGE (2013). Reuniting with his producing partners on THE SACRAMENT (2013), Peter Phok and Jacob Jaffke, West and his creative team would venture into the deserts of New Mexico to commit his vision to celluloid. The result, 2016’s IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE, would find West entering uncharted territory in a personal artistic sense, while staying true to the aesthetic conceits that have thus far propelled his career.
Like previous West narratives, IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE takes place in a singular, somewhat-confined location: the dying frontier town of Denton. Ethan Hawke plays Paul, a civil war vet haunted by some untold tragedy. He’s on his way down to Mexico, his only companion being his trusty dog– who he’s trained to be a ruthless killing machine on command. Paul stops in Denton’s saloon for a quick drink before continuing on, but manages to entangle himself in a fight with James Ransone’s Gilly, a cocky lawman with a chip on his shoulder and a lot to prove. He wins said fight, utterly humiliating Gilly in the process in full view of his posse (one of whom is played by Larry Fessenden, an early collaborator of West’s and an old filmmaking mentor from his internship days). In retaliation, Gilly and his posse ambush Paul in the middle of the night and kill his beloved dog. A heartbroken Paul vows total revenge, riding back into town for a day of reckoning. West spins an incredibly lean and straightforward narrative, venturing little outside of the central Paul vs. Gilly conflict save for Paul’s alliance with Taissa Farmiga’s sweet, lovestruck hotel clerk Mary-Anne, and his reluctant enmity with Gilly’s father, Marshal Clyde Martin. John Travolta earns second billing as the good Marshal, a morally-compromised lawman with a wooden leg. The action builds to an appropriately-explosive climax with no shortage of bloodletting, but West’s true interest lies in the nuanced relationship between his morally-ambiguous leads. The white hat/black hat dichotomy is a well-trod convention of the western genre, but West subverts it entirely in favor of letting the dynamic complexities of his gray-hat leads shine through.
IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE may be West’s first film working with bonafide star talent like Ethan Hawke or John Travolta, but behind the camera, he assembles a core creative team made up of longtime collaborators. Some, like cinematographer Eric Robbins or sound designer Graham Reznick, have been with him since his first feature– 2005’s THE ROOST. Robbins imbues the 2.35:1 35mm film frame with a dusty, earth-tone palette appropriate to the Old West setting, embracing the iconography of classic westerns past while bringing its own unique identity to the table. West and Robbins also utilize classical camerawork like cranes and dollies in conjunction with modern techniques like handheld setups and slow zooms, injecting a kinetic freshness into a genre that hasn’t seen much innovation since the days of Sergio Leone. Perhaps the most striking aspect of the film’s cinematography lies in the way West and Robbins render Paul’s civil war flashbacks. They present these sequences as nightmares, borrowing contemporary horror techniques like staging a chase in the woods at night and lighting it almost entirely by flashlight. Longtime production designer Jade Healy returns as well, building the entirety of Denton out in the New Mexican desert quite literally as a sandbox for West and company to play around in. Finally, frequent composer Jeff Grace returns after sitting out THE SACRAMENT, channeling the style of Ennio Morricone with an eclectic mix of guitar riffs, drums, spurs, and synth strings.
As previously mentioned, IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE is West’s first genre exercise out of the horror/thriller realm, seemingly content to tackle the conventions of the western in a straightforward manner. Indeed, on first glance, most if not all West’s features seem rather straightforward in their storytelling– another look, however, reveals these otherwise “straightforward” narratives are nevertheless born of a postmodern technical approach. THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL (2009) embraced its 1980’s period setting to the point that it was physically crafted and marketed to appear like it had been made contemporaneously. THE INKEEPERS (2011) married the visual conceits of the Victorian haunted house story with the modern technological era. Even THE SACRAMENT used its found-footage structure to question the objectivity of the format itself. IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE subverts the swashbuckling nature of the western genre by using the visual grammar of horror during Paul’s climactic vengeance spree. Beyond narrative beats like Larry Fessenden’s character getting his throat slashed in the bathtub, West employs the type of framing and movement one expects to see in a scary movie– or not see, given West’s strategic withholding of visual information from his compositions in favor of aural suggestion.
The vintage aesthetic that’s marked West’s body of work to date expectedly surfaces IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE, even if West is barely making a conscious effort to do so. In an age where most indie films like this one would have been shot digitally, West’s choice to shoot on glorious 35mm film is an old-fashioned one by its very nature. West further evokes the mid-century style of spaghetti westerns by borrowing (rather liberally, I might add) from the graphic style of Leone’s FISTFUL OF DOLLARS’ opening titles for his own credits. The result is a modern, modest western that pays homage to its cinematic forebears, destined to age gracefully thanks to the timeless quality of its execution.
IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE received a high profile premiere at South By Southwest, bowing to mostly positive reviews. However, it didn’t have much staying power at the box office, leaving the arthouse circuit almost as fast as it arrived. Thankfully, it was made under the Blumhouse model, which it to say it was churned out on the cheap as part of a larger slate, and its failure to perform could be subsidized by the profits from Blum’s other pictures. Despite its almost-certain destiny as a minor work in West’s filmography, IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE nevertheless exhibits an ambitious young director using his established skill set in the horror realm to become a more well-rounded filmmaker overall.
IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE is currently available on high definition Blu Ray via Universal
Written by: Ti West
Produced by: Jason Blum, Peter Phok, Jacob Jaffke, Ti West
Director of Photography: Eric Robbins
Production Designer: Jade Healy
Edited by: Ti West
Sound Design by: Graham Reznick
Music by: Jeff Grace