Looking at the new HBO series Westworld, the commotion of the main drag is perhaps the defining image of the opening episodes. The walk, between the train station and the saloon, is the dusty foyer to the titular reality theme park. It’s so thoroughly stocked with Western tropes and Sci-Fi androids, meant to amaze visitors, that it’s too convenient, too stimulating, to be real. In his new film In a Valley of Violence, director, writer, editor, and executive producer Ti West stages the equally artificial cowboy town of Denton.
Denton, a dried-up hub that’s home to no more than a dozen people, looks like it was airlifted from a playhouse onto a plot of perfectly cleared North Texas plains. It’s as rustic as a sand trap, but mostly, it’s eerily vacant. No extras, no roaming horses, no “Camptown Races” drifting from between the swinging saloon doors. Not even a tumbleweed can sneak into the bare ambiance of Ti West’s Old West.
The absence of those adornments reminds us that so many Westerns, Westworld chiefly self-aware among them, often rely on there being just enough people, intrigue, and factions in town to sustain a story set within a matter of blocks. Stripping to the rawest setting elements is on the opposite end of the deconstructionist spectrum from Westworld’s multi-sensorial science fiction. It’s not clear to what end In a Valley of Violence pares down to only a drifter with a secret (Ethan Hawke), a corrupt marshal (John Travolta), the marshal’s hothead son (James Ransone) and a damsel looking for a way out (Taissa Farmiga). Sapping clichés of their color, but still keeping them firmly in the realm of clichés, is an experiment in distillation that seems doomed to fail. The utter emptiness of the universe could be a deliberate choice by West, a director who’s made his career on dread and playing within the horror genre in films such as The Roost (2005), The Innkeepers (2011), and more.
So many stylistic choices in In a Valley of Violence seem half-intentional and end up heterogeneous. It has a title that sounds like an epic poem, an opening scene that evokes the brashest Sergio Leone cinematography, and a title sequence rendered in comic book-style animation. The plot is a mash-up of John Wick (2014) and Unforgiven (1992), hungry to tackle both the reluctant loner’s revenge and the moral degradation of the whole frontier.
Our drifter Paul (traveling with his loyal collie) is about a ten-day ride from the Mexican border. He plans to cross over and live out the rest of his days in silence: the closest thing the cavalry vet believes will bring him some peace of mind. The movie agrees with that sentiment, having a bizarre relationship to speech. So many of its scenes easily stretch to three and four minutes of people delivering soliloquies while another person looks on ominously.
Paul is often the looker. He’s the Eastwood archetype: the strong and silent anti-hero with unknown origins. But Hawke, who looks like he wandered off the set of The Magnificent Seven (2016) for a weekend to make this film, is dreadfully miscast. An actor who best portrays boyish characters with attractive narcissistic streaks, he compensates for his lack of natural ruggedness and size by whispering throughout this film.
When Paul stops in Denton for water, he immediately encounters trouble in the form of Gilly Martin, the marshal’s son. James Ransone’s performance is loud but monotone, yelling phrases in anachronistic diction, such as: “Are we seriously having this conversation right now?” The film’s most painful attributes are innkeepers Mary-Anne and Ellen (Taissa Farmiga and Karen Gillan) who have been pigeonholed as desperate comedic relief with their stilted arguments about whether they ought to love men like Paul or men like Gilly.
When Travolta finally arrives, he tries to spur the movie onward, hobbling around with a peg leg and drawling so jauntily it’s nearly iambic. The marshal leads the charge when it comes to showing how inept all these men look when the bloodlust really sets in. They really don’t want to be shot to death, even if they talk like action hero caricatures.
While not everyone is taken so lightly as Mary-Anne and Ellen, the entire cast falls victim to a scene structure in which monologues are drawn out and clipped short at the very end by sudden action. With ominous horns constantly crescendoing underneath, it’s a forced rhythm that West probably wants the audience to savor, but it lands more like odd theater: one actor taciturn, the other babbling, until something happens.
If In a Valley of Violence has something going for it, it’s curious and ambitious enough in its style to turn ugliness into entertainment. When it finally tries to make good on the title, the acts of violence are just imaginative and preposterous enough. West adds some horror-style flourishes in which violin bows screech and dark shapes zip past the camera.
However, the dialogue, when it’s at its worst, is populated by clichés of nihilism so haphazard they contradict each other. At the (very telegraphed) moment of his poor dog’s demise, Paul calls out “Oh God!” and Gilly retorts, “There’s no God around here.” Ten seconds later, the black hat adds, “It’s not time for begging, it’s time for praying.” Well, which is it? Is this a forsaken universe or a righteous one? Are we dispensing with tropes or fully relying on them? Is violence a tragedy or an existential condition? Is this a Western or a dark spoof on one?
The inability to give a straight answer to any of these questions lands In a Valley of Violence in the middle of nowhere. It’s tucked onto some strip of tonal desert between kitsch and deathly seriousness. The fatalism, the movie stars slumming it, the pulp, the theatricality, and the half-baked comedy all show up for a gunfight in the center of town. The least they could do is make a bloody, wild orgy of the genre. Instead, it’s a staring contest.