“I’m not here to save you. I’m not here to save anybody.”
The Spaghetti Western is back! In a Valley of Violence harkens back to the films of Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood. From the opening credits we know a very close similarity to films like The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Like those earlier Westerns, this is something of a demythologized West. There is no romance to this vision of the Old West. People and life are hard. There is little love to be seen. Through it all, there is a good deal of talk about sin and salvation.
On his way to Mexico, Paul (Ethan Hawke) and his dog Abbie come across a whisky priest (Burn Gorman) in the desert. He is told that over the ridge is the town of Denton, that is “full of sinners.” While Paul wants to avoid other people, he decides a stop in town would be a good idea. When he arrives in town, the first building is a boarded up church. Paul reflects, “God must have packed up and left with the rest of them.” Soon Paul has a run-in with Gilly (James Ransone), the local bully and son of the Marshal (John Travolta). Paul is happy to go on his way, but Gilly isn’t willing to let things go. Violence and vengeance escalate, and Paul, who is haunted by his past, must go back on the promise he made himself to not kill any more.
Added to this mix are two sisters, Mary-Anne (Taissa Farmiga) and Ellen (Karen Gillan) who run the town’s hotel. Ellen has connected herself to Gilly as a way out of the boring life of this community. Mary-Anne, whose husband has left her, sees her hope of escape in Paul. But Paul has a past that makes him not want any human connections. He sees himself as a sinner without hope of redemption. As such, he won’t allow himself to be loved, and so cannot offer love.
It is interesting just how often the ideas of sin and salvation come up in the dialogue between all these characters. They seem to be defined by the sins of their lives. Anger and hubris are very central to Gilly and his cohort. The Marshal just wants to maintain a status quo, even though he knows his son is dangerous. Ellen embodies vanity. Paul cannot let go of the sins of his past. That is the very reason he his drifting through the desert to get to Mexico. Only Mary-Anne has a claim to goodness. She spends her life taking care of others but feels as though she is punished for it. Salvation seems impossible to these characters. Paul just seeks solitude as an escape from his guilt. The rest seem to see themselves as residing in hell. It is Mary-Anne who is actively looking for something better—a redemption that she hopes she can find in Paul.
Whether salvation can be found in this film is a question worth considering. But a deeper question is whether violence can be the medium by which salvation is accomplished. This is a story that is driven by revenge and violence. Does all that overcome the sinfulness that envelops Denton or by the end do we think that the evil that dwells there has come out victorious?
Photos courtesy Focus World