IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE
Director: Ti West
Cast: Ethan Hawke, Taissa Farmiga, James Ransone, Karen Gillan, John Travolta, Toby Huss, Larry Fessenden, K. Harrison Sweeney, Tommy Nohilly, Burn Gorman
MPAA Rating: (for violence and language)
Running Time: 1:44
Release Date: 10/21/16 (limited)
Review by Mark Dujsik | October 20, 2016
The mysterious man wanders into a town in which the townsfolk don't much care for the imposition of a mysterious stranger in their midst. There's a well-trodden path that the story of In a Valley of Violence will—almost must—take. Everyone knows it by now. The stranger, who's sick and tired of violence, will find himself confronted with it, against his will and his wishes. The perpetrators of the violence will have underestimated the stranger, overestimated their own power, or committed some fatal combination of those miscalculations. This will not end well for anyone.
That's how it's supposed to go, and for the most part, that is how it goes in writer/director Ti West's film. There's no wrench in the works of the plot—no significant way in which the fated path of this story is averted or even shifted. The change from the norm, which is minor but significant to how the film follows through on the story's direction, is in the attitude and mentality of the stranger in regards to violence.
At some point in the usual trajectory of this tale, it's as if a switch has been flipped in the protagonist's brain. The once reformed hero suddenly will become capable of the kind of final violence that we always knew he had in him. He may be confronted on multiple occasions before that point, but there's a final straw—a final affront that is one too many. That's when our silent, passive, and/or strong-willed hero's mind turns to bloody revenge. No one else will give him justice, so he has to take it for himself.
The protagonist of this film follows in the tradition of the strong, silent Western hero who has little need for society. He's Paul (Ethan Hawke), a man of few words in the company of other people but who unleashes a litany of them whenever he's alone with his trusty dog. The soliloquies offer a sad picture: a man racked with guilt for his past sins, fleeing from the world to find some sliver of peace, and feeling even guiltier for leaving his life behind him.
The first clue that our hero does not fit squarely into the mold of his antecedents is the casting of Hawke. He is not an actor that one would typically associate with this brand of character, and that's the point. Hawke's performance almost instantly shatters whatever expectations we might have about what makes a character of this variety tick.
The first confrontation is with a drunken priest (Burn Gorman). The priest's mule is exhausted, and he wants a new mode of transportation. Paul's horse looks promising, so the priest pulls a rifle on the stranger.
Paul's response is measured. He waits for the priest, who is quite drunk and clearly unwilling to shoot someone in cold blood, to say his piece before drawing his pistol from its holster. Paul offers a trade: the priest's life for the rifle cartridges and some water. The trade is more than fair for both parties. For the priest, the reason is obvious. For Paul, it's not just water and ammunition that he's getting. He's also obtaining the peace of mind of not being forced to kill another human being. He has had enough of that business.
The foundation of Hawke's performance is a pair of qualities that don't fit this archetypal role. There's a sense of unflappable rationality to the character—a feeling that he can and will work out any situation in his head before going into action. There's also an air of inescapable melancholy to the man. His eyes do not offer the steely gaze we associate with the mysterious, vengeful stranger of the Western. They are instead pools of sadness, seemingly ready to overflow with tears at any moment. Paul is not weak, though. The trick to Hawke's performance is that we can see the ways in which the character betrays our expectations of the archetype, while we still know—beyond the requirements of this plot—that breaking this man's newly acquired aversion to violence would be a dangerous mistake.
The tension, then, is not in waiting to see what will break Paul. It's in waiting to see if that spirit can be broken. The means of attempting to push the man toward violence are familiar. Paul wanders into town, passing through on his way to Mexico. Gilly (James Ransone), the local braggart, insults and threatens Paul and his dog. There's a fair fight that Paul wins. Gilly's father, the town's Marshal (John Travolta), wants Paul gone, and the lawman promises that no harm will come to the stranger if he complies.
It's not a lie, but it is a promise that the Marshal cannot keep. Gilly and his cohorts ambush Paul that night, and their actions force him to consider taking action of his own.
It is the extra step of consideration that matters here. West is not depicting a man driven to exact violent vengeance upon those who have wronged him. Paul is pushed by tradition, his past, and the encouragement of Mary Anne (Taissa Farmiga), a local girl who has had enough of these men.
Paul, though, knows what taking action—no matter how justified it may be to himself and others—will mean. In each and every moment that would traditionally result in another dead body, he questions and delays taking action, because each confrontation presents a decision: to kill, betraying the man he wants to be, or not to kill, betraying what may very well be his nature. That's the question of In a Valley of Violence, which turns the tables on a familiar formula by giving us a hero who is a man, not a myth.
Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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