Photography courtesy of Focus Features
Director Ti West came off the set of his new film knowing one thing: He didn’t want to make a movie set in the present ever again. “There are definitely days here in New Mexico when I wake up and think: ‘Holy shit, we’re making a Western,’” West wrote in a Tweet on set. In another he says: “Definitely the best stuff I’ve ever shot. The cast is mesmerizing.”
West’s Westward turn with Ethan Hawke and John Travolta was quite the departure from his best known works, horror films The Innkeepers and House of the Devil. But at the heart of even horror is what Collider.com calls “classically shot films with an understanding of form and function.” Perhaps that’s what we’ll find in In a Valley of Violence.
Here’s the premise: On his way toward Mexico, a drifter named Paul (Hawke) and his dog, Abbie, cut through the valley of the town of Denton, a place locals call the “valley of violence.” The nearly abandoned mining town is controlled by a group of misfits including Gilly (James Ransone), the son of the town’s marshal (Travolta). Tension grows between Paul and Gilly, leading to an act of violence that spurs the whole town into a chain of revenge.
With several horror movies under his belt from the past decade, West was looking to do something different. He was ready for what he calls “pure cinema.” Technically, his original idea was to do a “weird romantic comedy,” but then he met Ethan Hawke and heard Hawke wanted to do a Western. West wrote a script in December, Hawke liked it, and others jumped on board. By May, they were filming in New Mexico, and 25 days later, the footage was finished, complete with a comedic nod to West’s original idea.
“I like to flip archetypes on their head, and Westerns still have all these archetypes.All the characters are good at what they do.They like spinning their guns and saying all the right things,” West told ScreenDaily. “In real life, violence is always disastrous, and people often regret their actions afterwards. It’s not often you get to see that in a Western. I wanted to show this reality where violence is scary, but also funny.”
In keeping with classic Western tradition, In a Valley of Violence was shot on 35mm film for its grain and texture. If they went the digital route, West told ScreenDaily it would look like a behind-the-scenes movie or History Channel re-enactment.
West and cinematographer Eric Robbins took inspiration from the tone and camera direction in comedic Westerns, and Robbins looked at fine art paintings from the likes of Thomas Hart Benton from the 1800s to better understand the time period.
Shooting in the summer in New Mexico meant battling wind, monsoon season, and 110-degree days. “Granted, that atmosphere gave us gorgeous clouds to work with,” Robbins told Filmmaker. “We simply did not have time to wait for either cloud cover or the sun, so lighting in a scene would occasionally just have to not match. When you watch Westerns, this is actually fairly normal, so I don’t feel too bad about it.”
The resulting revenge Western has met with mixed reviews. Variety magazine praises its genre purity but criticizes the story: “We never get more than a glimmer of personality within these well-worn character types, and West never digs beneath them to offer any sort of commentary or criticism.”
The Hollywood Reporter calls it a “genre revival that’s always enjoyable,” while The Guardian recognizes its unique sense of humor: “As the violence escalates, an absurdist dose of humor is added to the mix, injecting the film with a distinctly modern sensibility that is welcome and does not let up.”
It is a Western win? You’ll have to judge for yourself when it opens Sidewalk Film Festival on Friday, Aug. 26 at 8 p.m. at the Alabama Theatre. Wear your cowboy boots, and we’ll see you there.
More on Sidewalk Film Festival 2016:
- 6 Can’t-Miss Sidewalk Feature Films
- Screwball Sincerity: Daniel Scheinert’s Swiss Army Man
- 5 Reasons Not to Miss This Year’s Sidewalk Film Festival