Along with contemporaries like Jim Mickle and Adam Wingard, his films have progressively become more refined, with escalating budgets and a greater understanding of film form, and his career has gone from strength to strength (due in part to his friendship with Eli Roth) with his films becoming more and more successful.
It's a shame then that while his subversive genre films received all the critic plaudits they've never really broken through to the mainstream zeitgeist. IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE had the makings of being the first film in his oeuvre that could bridge the gap between cult-fav to bonafide hit. It ticks all the boxes; star power in Ethan Hawke and John Travolta, a modest budget and a genre that is enjoying a mini-revival at the moment, but it fumbled at the US box-office recouping a meagre $60,000 back on its budget and thus securing its direct-to-DVD status here in Australia.
Many a great film have flopped during their theatrical run only to be rediscovered on home-entertainment, so does IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE demand a viewing on your widescreen television? Yes. And no.
It's plot owes an incalculable debt to Chad Stahelski's uber-stylised hitman John Wick, in fact, in their barest form the films are essentially the same; someone kills Ethan Hawke's dog, Ethan Hawke kills everyone. While Wick's world was built around secret societies and an invisible culture hidden just behind the world we recognise, IN A VALLEY... already has its world established in a dusty Wild West frontier. In fact, IN A VALLEY... owes a debt to a great deal that came before it.
Right from its opening credits the film wears its influence on its sleeve. Like a hyperbolic rendition of any spaghetti western you care to think of, Jeff Grace's Leone-lite effort trots onto the screen like a soundtrack by a composer who heard the score of THE GREAT SILENCE once and tried to replicate it. As if that wasn't enough it even plays over a poor-man's Iginio Lardani animation.
Beyond being John Wick 1.5, the plot is like a mash of hard-boiled noir and western. Imagine Oliver Stone's U-TURN with Kevin Costner's OPEN RANGE thrown in for good measure and you're three quarters of the way to West's first step outside the horror genre.
Perhaps that's why IN THE VALLEY... flopped upon its release; it doesn't really push the boundaries of a genre that needs another good shove. While Tarantino is doing his best with the form, West is simply relying on tropes and has arrived too soon after THE HATEFUL EIGHT, BONE TOMAHAWK and Keanu's ice-cold killer to leave a mark of impact.
It's not all a disappointment though. If there's one thing West is a master of it's coiling the tension springs of the plot. Like his previous efforts IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE starts slow, taking its time to sew the seeds of character, teasing the audience with the expectation of violence and not delivering it, forcefully tuning the scenario into a powder-keg of expectation that lets rip in the most spectacular way in its final act.
The best thing that happened to the film was the casting. Hawke's cowboy, Paul, is a man who can't escape his violent nature, even when he's trying to be an average everyman. He's a man of compassion with the fire war in his soul that he's trying to extinguish. It's the kind of thing Hawke can do in his sleep, even when he's talking to a dog to reveal exposition that other actors would fumble.
Travolta's Marshal, the one-legged lawman of Denton, shows up for a brief spell and has his fair share of dialogue to chew, giving us one of his most fun and complex performances since Chili Palmer strutted his stuff on Hollywood Boulevard. He's a good man, put in a bad situation thanks to a loved one and is forced to respond in a way he disagrees with.
It's not a complete disaster then - West needed his film to move beyond pastiche in order to be fully successful but as it stands it's just a collection of well executed cliches that benefits from half-decent performances and a great pace.
Fun, for sure, but far from West's best work and further from essential viewing.