A handful of small impact tremors in the horror genre under his belt, Ti West, the only so-called mumble-gore director worth a damn, taints the Western with his particular brand of suggestible, dark energy in the gravidly-titled In a Valley of Violence. A nomadic firecracker of a film that recalls the existential-crisis minimalism of Ride in the Whirlwind and The Shooting, this slice of vintage pulp fiction eschews the grandiloquent game of Once Upon a Time in the West for a kind of taciturn swampy pop-art. With the intro credits slinking like a pink panther gone feral, the spirit of the ‘60s hang high here, looming over this parched throat of a film like a sun that just won’t set. Thankfully, reverence to the past never feels like a noose held around the film’s neck. There’s an analog spirit here, but West never loses himself in the wayward mire of classical pastiche or overly-hagiographic reference to Westerns past. This is West’s West, not a feeble attempt to ape Leone’s or Ford’s.
As his own construct, In a Valley of Violence is also a peculiar and unclassifiable wrestling match between mumble-mouthed, vaguely cheeky garrulousness and tight-lipped loneliness. With such an unstable balance, you never quite know which side of the fence the film is playing: glib, talkative irony or deliberate, quiet sincerity. Once or twice (a conversation about pregnancy), the screenplay trickles into the kind of drippy post-modern irony that over-confident youthful filmmakers fly toward like moths, but generally West’s balance avoids the arbitrary quirkiness expected of a young man’s film. The one-whiskey-sour-from-surrealism dialogue that pops up occasionally is sparse, an accompaniment to the piece rather than the film’s skeletal structure. It mostly feels less like an attention-seeking affectation and more like a genuine schism in the film’s mind, a sign of characters with too much time on their hands and plenty of mental sanity left to lose by conversing with themselves. The dialogue twists the characters like their brains are on the verge of frying in the sun without ever dipping into smug comic irony.
Those characters are more thinly stretched than many modern screenplays would dictate, but that only preserves West’s Anthony Mann-esque spirit of near-silent insinuation rather than melodramatic declamation. Drifter Paul is a perfect fit for Ethan Hawke’s malnourished features, restive ticks, and lingering eyes bearing hints of an unresolved past that the film isn’t about to exhume for us. The admirably inconsequential, even arbitrary tale the film weaves boasts no great stakes, nor does it pontificate on the soul of this man. Paul’s gaunt frame obviously carries the weight of his history as an army deserter, but the only explicit legitimization of this assumption is a stunning minute-long interlude that cuts war down to an epileptic seizure photographed in near-monochrome like a phantom reckoning with the past. For all the film’s dryly mordant dialogue, Paul is never given the trivializing monologue we expect. He doesn’t care about his soul, and the film, singed of any fat, insinuates the weight of a human’s history rather than lobbing it on top of us like a two-ton textbook of dialogue. It’s the little gestures that count: when Paul picks up his hat after a fight, it’s as if he is searching for whatever empty gesture can preserve even a simulacrum of the tattered identity found encrusted on strips of clothing and articles bearing one’s social archetype.
The other major player is the town marshal of Denton played by John Travolta with a nervous energy lacking his usual overtly hammy, maniacal villainy, etching a character that is simultaneously more malevolent and wounded than one would expect from this B-actor with an A-actor reputation. The wiry film around him and Paul packs a surprising punch of character flavor too, weaving unease and consequence out of a seemingly futile conflict. Paul embarrasses the marshal’s son, who seeks revenge by killing Paul’s dog, who in turn lets himself loose on said son much to his father’s dismay. The characters are surprisingly quotidian types, particularly the tired marshal who obviously understands how idiotic his son is but defends him out of a sense of familial obligation he intimates may be just one among many socially-enforced rituals he follows just to keep from exerting too much energy to change things.
Absent any hand-wringing, the actual conflict ultimately unfurls as an out-of-the-way scuffle between people who just don’t interact with others as keenly as they should. In general, the instigating buffoon of a son excepted, they hold to a path of least resistance disrupted only by humanity’s stubborn habit of getting in the way of their own best intentions. These aren’t people with itchy trigger fingers. Even Paul is well aware of the dimming infirmity of his own body, and West weaponizes his bare-bones situation to provide space for characters realizing mid-conflict the essential pointlessness of the situation they’ve found themselves in. The entire thing is shot-through with a sense of predictability that eventually mutates into mounting inevitability.
Shot by Eric Robbins in a crisp, tactile 35 millimeter with popping but weathered colors that feel like Jodorowsky simmered way down, this is obviously a throwback affair. But it is among the few to capture the leisurely nature of classic Westerns, pitching the Wild West as a land of off-kilter, helter-skelter abandon that, in this case, isn’t empty to be filled with bustling possibility so much as emblematic of a rapidly fading national pulse. It’s hardly a formal masterpiece, but the filmmaking is economical and leisurely, boasting a fairly progressive and unexpected cultivation of foreground and background space and deep-focus worthy not of Welles but at least a Welles imitator. But don’t expect Fordian majesty or mystery: this is a rascally varmint of a film, not a grand monolith but a weasel that wisely leaves the poetics off the table.Cross-pollinating spontaneity and tragic inevitability, the film mines the primeval polluted texture of the great revisionist Westerns of the ‘70s without contaminating itself with an aggrandizing tenor that draws attention to its own magnitude.
The effects are probably more minimal than they could be, but the casual nature of the film is among its major pleasures. This is no McCabe & Mrs. Miller lumbar puncture of American fragility and demythologization; it has no such ideas rattling around in its brain, clogging up the elemental beauty of the tale. (And I say this as someone who calls Altman’s film his favorite Western of all time). This tale of doomsday in Denton is punchy and spirited without ever seeming flip or loose with its consequence-filled violence; it’s little more, but it ain’t less either. In a nation of deserters, the “a” in the title (rather than the more declamatory “the”) suggests not only an existential vagueness but a humility, unveiling that this is but one cavern of American anxiety among many. In other words, this is but a splinter in an endless eon of hang-ups and hesitations in the American West. It doesn’t want to be “the” definitive, de-facto, nothing-left-out story of anything. It’s comfortable in its own skin.