Though the Western has never truly disappeared from the American cinematic landscape, it certainly doesn’t hold the prominence that it once did, and modern Westerns tend to either act as meditations on the genre or use the Western pastiche in order to develop a social commentary for modern audiences. It’s a little bit strange then that Ti West, a writer and director best known for horror films such as The House Of The Devil and The Sacrament, has decided to tackle the Western in his latest project, In A Valley Of Violence. And yet it seems that West has made one of the most genuine Westerns in years, which is only made better by its own peculiar brand of absurdist self-awareness.
The story opens on a wanderer named Paul (Ethan Hawke), alone in the desert wastes save for his horse and his trusted sidekick Abbie, played by an exceedingly well-trained dog named Jumpy. He enters the town of Denton for supplies, where he comes across a bullying young man who insists on picking a fight with the quiet, non-confrontational Paul. However, when the punk threatens to shoot Abbie, Paul reacts quickly and effectively, turning the bully’s posse and local law enforcement against him and Abbie.
West has a slow-burning sensibility to his plotting that fits perfectly with the solemn character he and Hawke have created in Paul. Paul only speaks at length with Abbie in private moments of solitude, and any time two humans occupy the screen together there is an underlying tone of menace, as both the characters and we as the audience wait to see just who will snap first. West places his horror chops on full display in that respect, but never so much so that In A Valley Of Violence becomes another horror flick to add to his filmography. Even if it weren’t for the heavily Tarantino-esque lean into the nostalgia of Western production and aesthetics, the tension is never meant to outright scare us, just to keep scenes at an uncomfortable simmer.
That’s why it’s so surprising that the film also displays a comic level of absurdity that never goes so far as to break the tension, but does add some bizarre chuckle-worthy moments. Jumpy is surprisingly charismatic for an animal, not only raptly attentive to Hawke’s dialogue with her, but capable of performing incredibly endearing feats of near-human behavior. Animal lovers are going to love her, and the rest of us won’t be able to help but grin and chuckle at her antics. Furthermore, human characters react to the inevitable third act violence in surprising ways that can’t help but provoke laughter, yet their situation is preposterous enough that the comic relief just so happens to work. It’s almost as if real people found themselves caught up in the plot of a Western, reacting in such a way that betrays their incredulity. Normally tension and comedy don’t mix well in a cinematic space, but West somehow finds a way to keep his film tonally consistent while offering both simultaneously.
This doesn’t make In A Valley Of Violence a perfect film; the characters tend to exist on the shallower end of the archetype pool, and the story doesn’t quite have the ambition to be thematically about much more than what’s portrayed on screen. Yet because that ambition isn’t really there, it’s hard to fault the film too heavily for it. What we do have is an unexpected genre film from an unexpected filmmaker that functions unexpectedly well as a no-frills presentation of good cinema. The Western may never have truly died, but In A Valley Of Violence is a revival of the genre’s lack of pretense.
You can find an interview with director Ti West in the current issue of Substream Magazine, on sale now!