There's a distinct insincerity to faux grindhouse pictures that's insulting to anyone who spends a ton of time ingesting the real deal. The attention to imitating the "warts and all" aesthetic too often trumps replicating what made these movies special in the first place: the genuine desire to see one's self and vision projected on screen, limitations be damned. Thankfully, Ti West understands this fact, as his spaghetti homage In a Valley of Violence never once attempts to act as parody, but rather plays like a legitimate entry into the Italian gunslinger genre. All that's missing is some beat up film stock and ridiculous dubbing for it to truly feel at home with the brethren it's cleverly aping.
West has always been an astute student of genre cinema history. From the block yellow titles of The House of the Devil to the Kubrickian still of The Innkeepers, he's a filmmaker who is able to borrow from the past while still retaining his matchless artistic thumbprint. In a Valley of Violence is no different. Beginning with a slow Sergio Corbucci zoom before smashing into a Day of Anger animated title sequence, the reference points are clear as day. However, West merely utilizes these signifiers as a jumping off point to tell his own super bloody (and super funny) tale of revenge.
There's not much to In a Valley of Violence in terms of plot, but then again none of its spaghetti influences were overly complicated to begin with. In Valley, our gruff Man With One Name, Paul (Ethan Hawke), is just passing through on his trusty steed with his best furry pal by his side. He casually name drops a woman whom we know he's still in love with, while his mangy pooch, Abbie, steals the hearts and minds of everyone she comes in contact with (seriously -- watching this dog tuck itself in at night is a trip). Though there's a minor altercation with a drunk preacher (Burn Gorman), Paul shows mercy and swears he's "done killing". All this cowboy wants is some water to drink on a hot day in the desert and to be left the hell alone, wallowing in the memories of what once was.
Of course, that doesn't happen. Riding in to the titular dead man's town, Paul finds himself harassed by Gilly (James Ransone), a local loudmouth who wants nothing more than to pull his cock out and have a measuring contest. Everybody in the audience knows Paul’s is bigger, and once he takes Gilly into the street and drops him like a bad habit before his vapid ladyfriend (Karen Gillan), we know there's going to be hell to pay. Gilly's father, the town Marshall (John Travolta), tries to shoo this new outlaw away before things get worse, but the ruffian and his gang (which includes a delightfully slimy Larry Fessenden) catch up with Paul and carry out an act of heartbreaking evil. The need for vengeance overtakes the loner, and he will not rest until every last one of these shitheels is choking on lead and blood.
That's it – the basic plot of West's Western acts as an anchorage for the actors to really cut loose and have a ball, chewing dust-coated scenery as they spit incredible lines of dialogue at one another (West's script is just dynamite). One of the coolest aspects of In a Valley of Violence is that it's just as hilarious as it is bloody, and every single cast member seems to be working on the same uber-entertaining wavelength. Travolta and Ransone are giddily good together, creating an antagonistic familial bond that's just as responsible for Travolta's gimp as the hobbled leg he lugs about. Meanwhile, Taissa Farmiga adds a sense of softness to this rapscallion refuge, pining for a prince to come rescue her from this crimson soaked gorge. The population of the ghost town may be small, but each inhabitant is fully fleshed, wearing guns on their hips and bonnets on their heads.
If there's a weak link in the cast, it's actually Hawke, who never really rises above doing a Halloween party Eastwood impersonation. He's not terrible – rather just forced. In some of the film's quieter moments, he does a decent job of conveying Paul's broken past. But once Jeff Grace's thundering, Morricone-inspired score kicks in and the bullets begin to fly, it's hard to take Hawke seriously as a hardened Old West killer, all brooding throaty grizzle. For a movie that seems sincere in its desire for authenticity, the lead feels rather forced.
Nevertheless, those familiar with Ti West's filmography are going to notice that his usual slow burn is almost completely absent, replaced by a keen awareness of spaghetti visual tropes that replace his usual meticulous pacing. This is a good thing. As much as In a Valley of Violence fits with the writer/director's genre verisimilitude, it's also a giant moment growth. We’re watching West flex and show off a bit, and at this point, he’s earned the right to do so.