October 27, 2016

As if David MacKenzie's award-worthy "Hell or High Water" wasn't enough of a reason to celebrate cinema, and particularly the American western, Antoine Fuqua brings us the high octane stunning reimagination of "The Magnificent Seven." But now lauded horror genre writer/director/editor Ti West enters the corral with IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE, a real rootin' tootin' western but with a Ti West twist, proving yet again that the western is alive and well and very much beloved.

As we saw with "The Magnificent Seven", Ethan Hawke was made to sit a horse. . .and shoot. . .and be the reluctant hero, and does so brilliantly as Army deserter Paul in West's genre-bending IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE.

Haunted by the spectre of what he has done in the name of battle, Paul is heading to Mexico with his trusty dog Abee when he stumbles into the somewhat corrupt and violent town of Denton. Just looking for some food and water for himself and Abee, not to mention a bath for both, Paul manages to run afoul of the town bully Gilly and his goonish friends, Roy and Tubby. The situation becomes stickier given Gilly is son of the town marshal, a man who is on the take while manipulating the town through fear. Challenged by Gilly to a fight, Paul whoops him soundly and fairly, embarrassing him before the town. Needless to say, although the Marshal understands and has ordered his son to let Paul just leave the town in peace, that's not what Gilly has in mind. While Paul stays true to his word and he and Abby leave quietly the next day (much to the chagrin of Mary Ann who, together with her sister Ellen owns and runs the local hotel), in the cold dead of night, the worst possible horror happens to Paul and Abee at the hands of Gilly and his henchmen; horror that must be avenged.

When it comes to casting, West readily admits, "Everyone in this cast was my first choice. I was very fortunate and I couldn't imagine anyone else doing it." One look at the performances on screen and one heartily agrees. Breathing new life into the genre, although each character is archetypical to the western with male egos and bravura running high, West up-ends those archetypes with exaggerated spins and elements of horrific violence that continually surprise and catch the audience off guard.

Going beyond Ethan Hawke, who is ripe with nuanced emotion while capturing and celebrating the best traditions of the western genre, we have the highlight of the film - Jumpy. Starring as Paul's best friend and companion, Abee, you know his face, but you might not know his name. A canine star in his own right, Jumpy is the "brother" of another cinema favorite - Uggie. Trained by Omar von Muller, Jumpy already has over 30 credits to his name and more than 1.5 million YouTube views. Here, as Abee, he is the heart and soul of Paul and this film. A man and his dog.

For West, making IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE was all about having the audacity to make a cinematic film with authenticity, "to go out there and do it." Thanks to Jumpy's talents, "We got a dog to actually roll himself up in a blanket which, I think, you can count on one hand at best on the entire planet Earth how many dogs can do that. I don't know if anyone else can. . . Jumpy is a star. He's not just a talented dog. There's something behind Jumpy's eyes that's really incredible." And it shows on screen. Plus, the chemistry between Hawke and Jumpy is palpable.

As sisters Mary-Anne and Ellen, Taissa Farmiga and Karen Gillan, respectively, have the time of their lives. Both loud-mouthed and opinionated, they soar with confidence and independence. Important to West was that "I didn't want them just to be the hooker with the heart of gold boring story we've seen a hundred times. I wanted them to seem like real sisters. My experience with real sisters is they fight all the time, they yell at each other and they are generally very different people even though they're family." His instincts and scripting decisions were spot on with Gillan and Farmiga. It's their constant sibling sparring that adds great elements of humor. Dialogue all around is delicious; double-edged. And just wait until you see Farmiga. She is luminous and the camera loves her.

Someone else that gets a chance to shine is Larry Fessenden as Gilly's sidekick Roy. A blend of Jack Nicholson and Festus from "Gunsmoke", Fessenden is perfection. And speaking of Gilly, James Ransone. He plays Gilly with unbridled exuberance and pomposity which in and of itself adds layers of laughter, another up-ending by West. But then to see him spar with Karen Gillan's Ellen or be humbled and chastised by John Travolta as both the marshal and his father adds texture to a role that could have been atypical.

A real standout is John Travolta. Forget about his recent Emmy-nominated portrayal of Robert Shapiro. As The Marshal, this is THE Travolta we collectively know and love. There is a freedom and a spirit that is vital and exciting. You feel his relishment of the role; from a period appropriate wig (which looks wonderful on him) to a fake prosthetic leg and all costumed in black, Travolta goes for gusto with over-the-top ranting and raving but balances that with poker-face cool of Vinnie Barbarino.

Where Ti West truly excels, however, is with the production values and the cinematic scope of IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE. Calling on cinematographer Eric Robbins and production designer Jade Healy, the trio deliver a beautifully and immersive visual tonal bandwidth. Known as a visual director, West and company make the most with their use of light and framing of the camera, using the lens to make dust and wood textures as much a character as any of the actors. Celebratory is the lensing on film lending to a naturalism that digital just doesn't quite afford. Although not replete with panoramic vistas, we get a very panoramic feel of the town itself, especially when leading up to a climactic "high noon" shoot-out. Hand-in-hand with that panoramic feel of the town is West's attention to the town geography. As one watches you are constantly aware of where each character is which fuels the tension as we wait to see what each character will do next. Fueling that attention to geography within the town are the expected western tropes of roof-top shooting, hidden alleys and windows, all used to best storytelling advantage.

Going for a cooler tone of palette, the result is more of a neutral, old-fashioned look which keeps in step with the very town in which they lensed. Used in countless other films, including "3:10 to Yuma", production designer Healy deconstructed and distressed the town to make it look rundown and somewhat abandoned. Very nice attention to detail.

Also notable is Graham Reznick's sound design which is exemplary. Feeding into that sound design is Jeff Grace's score. Paying homage to spaghetti westerns and the legendary Morricone, no effective stone is unturned while parody is completely avoided.

Filled with expected tropes but never-ending surprises, IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE is Ti West at his best - from story to dialogue to tongue-in-cheek humor to perfect casting to cinematic beauty, and to a dog that will jump his way into your heart, and stardom.

Written and Directed by Ti West

Cast: Ethan Hawke, Jumpy, John Travolta, James Ransone, Larry Fessenden, Taissa Farmiga, Karen Gilla


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