Ethan Hawke is out for revenge in writer-director Ti West's violent 2016 drama.
Editor's Note: Throughout May, we’re continuing to celebrate Great Westerns of the 21st century — noteworthy movies and TV series with special appeal to C&I readers that have premiered since 2001. Check the Entertainment tab three times a week to see a different recommendation by C&I senior writer Joe Leydon. And be on the lookout for our May/June 2020 print edition, which features our list of the Top 21 Westerns of tghe 21st Century — and a cover-story profile of the great Robert Duvall.
Before he joined the ranks of The Magnificent Seven and saddled up as lawman Pat Garrett in The Kid, actor Ethan Hawke earned his spurs in In a Valley of Violence, a brutally gritty and slow-burningly suspenseful drama that is laced with elements of dark comedy, abounding in deadly serious mayhem, and loaded with tips of the Stetson to classic Spaghetti Westerns. Written and directed by Ti West, the 2016 western is available for streaming on HBO Go, Amazon Prime, You Tube and other platforms.
Hawke plays Paul, a wandering ex-soldier who’s psychologically scarred by his experiences in the Indians Wars. While making his way to Mexico with his faithful dog Abbie (played by an amazing well-trained collie named Jumpy), he lands in the forgotten town of Denton — a place now dubbed by locals as a “valley of violence.” The once-popular mining town is nearly abandoned, and controlled by a brash group of misfits and nitwits. Chief among them: Gilly (James Ransone), the troublemaking son of the town’s marshal (John Travolta). As tensions rise between Paul and Gilly, Denton’s remaining residents bear witness to an inevitable act of violence that starts a disastrous chain reaction, and quickly drags the whole town into the bloody crosshairs of revenge. “They left me with nothing,” Paul explains as the body count rises. “I’m going to leave them with less.”)
We spoke with Hawke shortly after the 2016 SXSW Film Festival premiere of In a Valley of Violence. Here are some highlights from our conversation.
C&I: In a Valley of Violence plays very much like a classic Spaghetti Western. And you make a terrific impact as the protagonist. While you were making the film, did you find yourself channeling your inner Clint Eastwood? Or did you have another role model in mind?
Ethan Hawke: No, I have to say that when you’re making a Spaghetti Western, it’s hard not to stand in the shadow of Clint Eastwood. The Man With No Name and the other characters he played in westerns are some of my absolute favorites. One Sunday afternoon while I was growing up in Fort Worth, my dad was supposed to take me to church — and instead he took me to an 11 am Sunday matinee of The Outlaw Josey Wales. It was one of my favorite Sundays of my life.
I definitely think In a Valley of Violence owes a great debt to the work of Clint Eastwood, like High Plains Drifter and several others. But I think that what I liked the most about what [director Ti West] has accomplished with our movie is that it manages to be a lot of things at once. It manages to tip its hat to Spaghetti Westerns, and it manages to tip its hat to the Coen Brothers’ sensibility. And it also manages to have its own voice.
C&I: Actors often talk about how they prepare for playing a character by bonding with other actors who play their friends on-screen. They spend time together, they go out drinking together, whatever. So how did you develop such great chemistry with Jumpy, the remarkable collie who plays your dog?
Hawke: It’s really funny that you say that. Because one of the great acting experiences of my life — and when I say this, people think I’m kidding, but I’m not — was my experience on White Fang [(1991)]. I was a kid — I was about 19 years old — and they sent me off to Alaska. I had six weeks to prepare, to get to know this half-breed wolf. I would wake up and spend four hours in this big pen, and we’d take him on walks. You wouldn’t take him leashed or anything, but we had this huge terrain in which this animal could run, and I’d go out there. It was an amazing acting lesson to try to earn the trust of an animal, because it’s the same thing you are trying to do with people. It’s just you have to do it nonverbally. It’s a lot more difficult because you can’t bullshit a dog. They smell authenticity on you or not.
Actually, all joking aside, the animal trainer who did White Fang with me, Clint Rowe, was a great guy. And he prepared me to work with other animals — like Jumpy. Working with Jumpy and his trainer on this film was so much fun. I was as proud of what I did in those scenes with Jumpy as I am of anything I’ve ever done. There’s a couple moments in the movie where the dog and I have looks that you couldn’t have ever anticipated; they just happened naturally.
C&I: It’s been said that every actor — and every director — wants to make two things: an Alfred Hitchcock type of thriller and a western. Would you agree?
Hawke: I think that everybody is drawn to the challenge of working inside a genre, and those are generally the genres that we grew up on. At least my generation did, and the generations before me. We grew up watching westerns. There’s something very American about them. And the Hitchcock thing is true, too, because it’s hard to make a good scary movie. It’s easy to make a bad one but hard to make a good one. The same with westerns.
I came close to making a western years ago when I did The Newton Boys with Matthew McConaughey and Vincent D’Onofrio. But it was set [in the 1920s], so it’s almost a gangster film, with cars and horses. In a Valley of Violence is my first full-blown western. I followed it up with The Magnificent Seven, and I’m so happy. It’s the genre I feel like I’ve been waiting 30 years for. I’ve been acting 30 years to get enough creases in my face to act in these movies.
C&I: John Travolta is very effective as the lawman in this small town where most of the movie is set. In fact, he manages to make his character seem like the most reasonable person on-screen. Whereas your character...
Hawke: [Laughs] He’s [bleeping] nuts, isn’t he?
C&I: Yes. It’s true that bad guys do something terrible to his dog. But then he goes off on this murderous rampage that seems, well, a tad disproportionate.
Hawke: I know. He’s just a nut, man. The movie kind of plays a trick on you because you find yourself rooting for him, and it’s only toward the end you realize: This guy has lost his marbles completely. Instead of storming in like hell, he probably would be better off with a little medication and a hospital, you know? He’s definitely not doing too well.
C&I: But, even so, this is a western. And a man’s got to do what a man’s got to do, right?
Hawke: [Laughs.] Exactly. That’s why you root for him. But he is absolutely nuts.