After turning in successful genre hits such as The House of the Devil, The Innkeepers, and The Sacrament, horror fans were a bit surprised when writer/director TI West made it known that his next feature wouldn’t be a horror film at all; It would be a Western. Not a horror/western, West was quick to clarify–just a Western. And while that may very well have been his intent, I’m not so sure that it was a successful one, as In a Valley of Violence presents itself as a gritty revenge-thriller that is doubtful to find an audience anywhere other than the genre he was hoping to escape.
One thing is for certain: West was able to round up an impressive cast for his 7th feature film. Names like Ethan Hawke, John Travolta, Karen Gillan, and Taissa Farmiga grace the screen with a group presence that goes a long way in making this relatively small-scale project feel like something else entirely. It’s also nice to see Larry Fessenden on screen as a reminder of West’s strong indie ties. But while the cast of characters alone might draw the interest of “genre” outsiders, none of them bring anything particularly strong to the table–and that’s surprising. Even when Hawke is at his grittiest and angriest, something about his actions and emotions fail to resonate with me as a viewer. It’s cool and awesome to look at, but not as powerful as it should have been. I imagine that viewers will sympathize with his motivation, but that’s about it.
As for being a Western, I suppose that’s true in the strictest sense of the genre. It does, in fact, take place in the proper time frame in a desolate town full of flowing dresses, cowboy hats, and horses, but the environment feels terribly sparse. We’re led to understand that this town has seen better days, but the fact that it seems to be inhabited by less than 20 civilians is a bit strange. If this had been a film that plays out on the outskirts of town, the limited body count would make sense. But as it stands, In a Valley of Violence falls shy of feeling like a slice of something larger. Busing in about 20 additional extras would have gone a long way in making the town feel like something more than just a set piece. The same can be said for its rather utilitarian story.
I’ll admit that emotions ran high in the film’s turning point, but even that seemed like low-hanging fruit. It’s almost disappointing that West would focus on such a “gimme” when he’s shown such promise in previous films with more organic character arcs and motivations. What is done here is effective, but not terribly original. This is compounded by the fact that West wanted to leave the horror genre for fear of retreading familiar water but chooses to tread the very same tropes here. It’s a bummer, but that doesn’t make it bad.
West’s debut effort into a new genre is a commendable one, but he’s unableto truly explore something new and exciting in the narrative space. We’ve seen this all before, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t exciting. That said, I’ve seen the gritty Western/Thriller pulled off to greater success from far less accomplished filmmakers. TI West is an excellent horror filmmaker, but In a Valley of Violence proves that he’s still figuring out who he wants to be when he steps outside of that space.
In a Valley of Violence screened at the 2016 Toronto After Dark Film Festival.
In a Valley of Violence [TADFF Review]