Published Oct 20, 2016Ti West is a very difficult filmmaker to pin down. Rooting his work in the 'mumblegore' scene along with a cohort made up of Adam Wingard and Joe Swanberg among others, his films often veer wildly in tone without control, making it hard to tell how serious he's being. From indie-kid in-jokes to a formal hagiography for '80s horror cinema, West shows a real affection for the horror genre but isn't afraid to poke fun at it either, making films that feel dissonant and fascinatingly sloppy. How intentional that sloppiness feels all comes down to the viewer.
West has been edging closer to mainstream acceptance in recent years, especially with his 2013 VICE doc riffing on Jonestown, The Sacrament. That film was his entry in the found-footage format, proving West was capable of moving beyond '80s fetishism while still maintaining a mercurial tone that could include both light improv and deadly serious ruminations on American spiritualism, something that has run through most of his filmography. But often, his films can feel like a slapdash blending of too many styles, cues and contrasting themes, a gestating collage that feels on the brink of falling apart at any moment. Calling to mind the new-wavey films of Jonathan Demme, West's all-at-once approach is both thrilling and revealing of its limitations at the same time.
This reaches a peak in his new film, the revisionist western In a Valley of Violence. On one hand, it's West's broadest and most audience-pleasing film to date, a stripped down revenge saga with big-name actors. On the other, it proves that while West hasn't lost his voice, perhaps he was better off working within the horror form he knows, because In a Valley of Violence feels way too light and flimsy for the story it's telling. Relying on atmosphere and impression is one thing, but going after touchstones and making direct citations from films like Once Upon a Time in the West and The Searchers without having anything to say about them is another.
In a way, West's lifting of elements he likes from the Western 101 filmmaking school feels appropriately juvenile, given his punk anarchic streak that runs throughout his work. He's not going for deep cuts like the Tarantinos of the world, he's going for films he knows everyone has seen and takes the piss out of them. It's amusing, but in this case, only makes for pretty mediocre cinema.
Ethan Hawke stars as Paul, a drifter with a horse, a gun and a dog, who might be one of the best pups ever to grace the silver screen. West keeps things tonally off-course throughout the first act, as Paul arrives in a worn-down town and makes trouble with the son of the local sheriff and his band of misfits. Loaded with humour and heart in the early proceedings, West keeps the tone jokey for the first act, giving Jumpy the Dog plenty of practical tricks to perform to win over the audience. So of course, things take a turn for the worse, transforming into a western riff on John Wick. Eventually, Paul comes to blows with the whole town and standoffs ensue.
After a few exciting years in the indie wilderness, Hawke has settled into his elder statesman genre performer status quite well recently, starring in horror flicks like Sinister and this fall's other western, the Magnificent Seven remake. If he's not exciting as he used to be, he's certainly developed a reliable and welcome workmanlike quality to his repertoire, with a go-to gruffness. West banks heavily on Hawke to carry the film's emotional sincerity, as Paul grapples with his dark past and the consequences that haunt him. As for the rest of West's players, it's a mixed bag.
Perhaps it's appropriate, given West's slapdash style, that it feels like he gave every cast member different direction on the film. Taissa Farmiga and Karen Gillan play sisters who work at the local inn, and they play the material like a pair of millennials, all modern gestures and winks to the camera. Meanwhile, John Travolta sleepwalks through the film, barely showing up and lacking the alien coldness that makes his best performances feel exciting. It's a sparse cast, the Western genre played right down to the bone, so West's tonal disparity is all the more noticeable and jarring.
In a Valley of Violence isn't bad, but as West's big mainstream debut, it feels more like a shrug than it should; perhaps expectations are too high after a few years of serious indie buzz. West's half-serious, half-fun approach is always interesting to see, but maybe his next film should abandon his genre fetishism altogether.