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The John Travolta western that's dominating Netflix

It's fitting that one of the movies Netflix added to its catalog in the month of October is by acclaimed indie horror filmmaker Ti West. However, there's one important caveat: this particular West feature isn't actually a horror movie at all. The writer and director of The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers took a detour from the genre that put him on the map with In a Valley of Violence, a stark and often funny western that is currently in the top ten most viewed movies on Netflix.

In a Valley of Violence keeps its plot simple. Ethan Hawke plays Paul, a drifter traveling with his dog who finds himself in a declining town in the American West toward the end of the 19th century. After he embarrasses one of the town's hotheaded lawmen, Paul finds himself in the crosshairs of the man's friends and family, including the town's marshal, Clyde Martin (John Travolta). They mete out a cruel punishment, expecting it to be the last they see of Paul... but it's not. When Paul returns to town, he brings with him an appetite for vengeance that won't be quenched until blood is shed.

Here's what you need to know about this star-studded indie western that's currently got the town talking on Netflix.

In a Valley of Violence takes geography seriously

In a Valley of Violence is an economic film. There are only a handful of characters and the movie takes place entirely in the Wild West town of Denton and the surrounding desert. Making sure these sparse settings were used to their full effect was so important to West that he wrote the movie around them. The director told Filmmaker Magazine, "I wrote the script based on a pre-existing set I knew about in New Mexico. I figured if we could go in and change the way a pre-built town looked (rather than building our own) we could actually pull this thing off on a low budget."

And cost wasn't the only consideration that went into West's careful planning of the production. The action of In a Valley of Violence is visceral and required thoughtful planning and choreography. As West told Slash Film, it was crucial for him to create a realistic sense of geography for the film. "It's important to let everybody understand where people are at in the movie, in the sense of the landscape... We worked very hard at that, particularly because it's a Western," he explained. "Iconography-wise, geography is a big part of the genre. I want you to know where everybody is, but when you don't, it makes you nervous."

A dog steals the show in In a Valley of Violence

Sometimes, great film characters begin with a small role on the page that an actor runs away with and turns into a scene-stealing part. There is one such role in In a Valley of Violence. No, it's not Hawke or Travolta who brought so much raw talent and energy to set that the director changed the script to match the performance. It was Jumpy, the dog who plays Paul's trusted companion, Abbie.

In the film, Jumpy not only does some impressive tricks, he also makes for an engaging scene partner for Hawke, which helps flesh out the character of Paul. West told Movable Fest that it wasn't what he first had in mind for the canine character: "I wrote the movie not thinking about any of that with the dog." However, that all changed when he met Jumpy.

According to West, he hadn't considered what Jumpy could bring to the table until he saw the dog's incredible audition. He went on to say, "I thought it was going to be really hard to work with a dog. Nothing could be further from the truth. It was easy in every step of the way working with Jumpy and because of that, it made me go, 'I know Jumpy can put his paw over his face, so I'm going to write a scene where that happens.'"

Once you see what Jumpy can do on screen, you won't be surprised to learn that he was trained by Omar Von Muller, who also trained the dearly departed star of The Artist, Uggie (via Business Insider).

The movie had a disappointing run in theaters, but got solid reviews from critics

In a Valley of Violence is a bit of a hidden gem. When it had a limited release in theaters, it was mostly overlooked and brought in only a little more than $60,000 at the domestic box office. But despite not blowing up the box office, the movie received many strong reviews from critics.

While some didn't think that West did enough to update the tropes of the genre, many appreciated that he tapped into the secret to the success of many westerns that came before: gallows humor. Writing for RogerEbert.com, Sheila O'Malley lauded West's execution, saying, "West knows what's funny and — more importantly — knows how to film and choreograph events so the humor translates. It's the humor that makes the film."

Nigel M. Smith at The Guardian agreed. He wrote, "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."

Meanwhile, Amy Rowe at NY Daily News offered some broader praise for the film: "It isn't just the actors that dazzle in this beautiful movie. The rough, unforgiving terrain of the desert comes alive on 35mm film. A distinctly killer score from Jeff Grace punctuates West's narrative, which is full of outlandish banter between characters."

Clearly, Netflix audiences agree. If you're curious about what a horror director can bring to the western genre, check out In a Valley of Violence, currently streaming on Netflix.

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