If I have to hear Ti West’s movies called “slow burns” one more time, I might set my laptop on fire right quick. West’s breakthrough hit, The House of the Devil, was a leisurely paced throwback to early-’80s Satanic panic — before the slasher, with plenty of obvious jump scares, came to dominate the landscape. Critics loved the aesthetic and were charmed to find that the thrill was in the wait for evil to show its face. Since then, it’s almost as though West is on a one-man mission to grind genre cinema to a snail’s speed, especially with his character-driven The Innkeepers, whose protagonist’s boredom leads to few, measured frights.
This is actually an admirable mission. I know I’m tired of successive jump cuts, CGI, shaky cam and other techniques used to rev up most plot-based horror films. Unfortunately, West may not be the writer-director to pull it off. His newest is a Western, In a Valley of Violence, and it suffers from the issues that have plagued his recent films; a slow approach requires careful atmosphere-building, and these days West is actually stronger at writing funny dialogue than he is at creating atmosphere.
Ethan Hawke plays Paul, a character who shares some similarities with the actor's Goodnight Robicheaux from Antoine Fuqua’s Magnificent Seven remake — both fought in the war and are haunted by the violence they witnessed and perpetrated. Paul and his dog Abby are just passing through a nearly deserted town dubbed “A Valley of Violence” when local ass-clown macho man Gilly (James Ransone) challenges him to a fight. Paul insists he’s no gunfighter and doesn’t want violence, but he’s forced to knock Gilly out. The second he does so, he’s forever intertwined with the town and its marshal (John Travolta). Paul’s pushed to his edge and chooses revenge when the gang tries to murder him.
As West himself has written in the Talkhouse, the plot of a genre film doesn’t have to be entirely original if the execution is compelling and the characters are full of messy human traits. The execution, here, is on the shabby side. Character development is crucial to a story of this sort, but West doesn’t give his leads enough close-ups for their emotions, desires and fears to be clearly discerned, with the exception of those of plucky 16-year-old frontier child bride Mary Anne (Taissa Farmiga) — she’s bored and sad.
West also falters with the scene blocking, which is a shame, because so much can be gleaned from how characters interact physically with each other in a closed space. His astute writing does save this film from becoming a bore but doesn’t remedy its faults — he’s a funny man, and he gives Travolta a few killer lines, but these don’t mean much to the story. Throughout, I got the sense that these characters have little at stake, even when the film insists otherwise.
West shot on 35mm, which no doubt adds a grainy texture (and was definitely a challenge in the desert), but the framing is often mundane, and the editing becomes plodding and one-note, even when some kind of tension is surely called for. The type of “slow Western” West reveres could build that tension, of course — just think of that barrage of close-ups capping off The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. But In a Valley of Violence seems to possess only the skeleton of a classic spaghetti Western, not the heart of one. It should be noted that this film was written, produced, directed and edited all by West. What might it have been if he’d relinquished one, maybe two of these roles?