A darkly humorous western, In a Valley of Violence, is a refreshing change for horror writer-director Ti West. I never expected to laugh as often as I did watching this genre movie starring Ethan Hawke and John Travolta. But it begins with the amazing talents of Jumpy, a border collie that the internet knows as probably “the smartest dog in the world.” Though he’s a boy, he plays Abby, who has a rapport with Paul (Hawke) that’s almost human. Paul converses with her, and Abby barks back as if in conversation. She’s a terrific prop, nipping at the flies buzzing around them because she’s hungry and even taking a bubble bath in a small tub next to her partner, when Paul finds a moment to rest.
However, don’t get too attached to the film’s cuteness. In the town of Denton, located in a desert valley, a quartet of bullies rule. The gang is led by Gilly (James Ransone) the son of the town marshal (Travolta) who deals uneven justice in favor of his son. Denton is a savage town of savage men doing nasty things under a slight, barbaric semblance of law, and when Paul defends himself handily against Gilly, he becomes the target of Gilly’s gang.
Though the movie stands solidly in the western genre, West doesn’t leave his knack for horror imagery and tension behind, as the black humor creeps into the film via extremely violent acts. I often approach revenge-themed movies with reservation, lest they exploit themes for entertainment, yet West finds an impressive balance between violence and humor that points to the lame-brained quality of revenge while keeping the film firmly planted on the rails of entertainment.
West’s funny script is contrasted by the score by Jeff Grace featuring trumpets, guitar and even that go-to spaghetti western element made famous by Ennio Morricone: whistling. Grace’s score is almost a constant throughout, indulging in both awareness of the genre and creating tension in contrast to much of the film’s hilariously twisted moments. Both script and music work in tandem and in opposition to maintain a conflicted tone, which also speaks to the movie’s themes and whether there is genuine pleasure to be drawn from them. This is key to the black comedy. It’s both simultaneously funny and unsettling.
Also key to the soundtrack are the sounds of pain and misery — from the yelling by the actors to oozing sounds of human juices, be it blood or sweat — as these men lumber toward a predictable if cathartic ending. In one intense scene the marshal asks Tubby (Tommy Nohilly) why he sweats so much. “I just sweat sometimes on account of my biology,” he replies. The cast is also worth noting, particularly the high-strung Ransone as Gilly, Larry Fessenden, who seems to really enjoy dying on-screen and kudos to Taissa Farmiga and Karen Gillan, who play two sisters on opposing sides of the stand-off.
It’s a sick movie about men pushed over the top for pride and revenge — a silly thing taken to silly extremes. The humor comes from a complex if sometimes twisted tension in its subtle exploration of morality that is often associated with this genre of movie. That In a Valley of Violence maintains its fun all the way through makes it worth a trip to the movie house … for those bold enough to stomach in the violence.