Walking a fine line between charming lark and smirking goof, Ti West’s “In a Valley of Violence” is a Western homage that has its heart in the genre, but not so much in the story. Stripping its gunslinger plot down to the most essential pillars, the film has plenty of incidental pleasures to offer: a few chuckles, some typically Westian explosions of violence, a deliriously fun score, and a pair of perfectly solid performances from Ethan Hawke and John Travolta. (The real standout performance, however, comes courtesy of Jumpy, the magnificent collie who stars as Hawke’s dog.) But there’s a nagging emptiness where its center ought to be, a feeling that what we’re watching isn’t a finished film so much a proof of concept, a skilled, slightly warped cover version of a familiar tune. West’s grasp of the rhythms and the grace notes of the Western idiom is undeniable, but he never seems to find a film worth telling within it.
The basic outlines of “Violence” are Dick-and-Jane in their simplicity: “High Plains Drifter” by way of “John Wick.” Hawke stars as Paul, a grizzled loner fleeing a mysterious past toward Mexico with his trusty steed and multitalented pooch, Abbie, by his side. Standing between him and the border is the desolate outpost of Denton, which requires Paul’s arrival to even count as a one-horse town. Not long after rolling into the local saloon, he runs afoul of a gang of roughnecks lead by the hair-trigger Gilly (James Ransone, aggressively chewing every syllable of his black-hat speeches, several of which go on at least twice as long as they need to).
Only after laying out the cocky Gilly with a single punch does Paul learn that he’s the son of the town marshal (Travolta), who runs him out of town minutes after he’s managed to pick up a lonely female admirer in 16-year-old Mary-Anne (Taissa Farmiga, charmingly motormouthed), who helps run the very vacant local inn. Paul is pursued to the outskirts of town by Gilly and his gang, and their attempted ambush causes him to swear revenge on the whole settlement.
Though often pigeonholed as a horror purist, West is first and foremost an astute student of genre in general, and his affection for the Western is palpable in every frame. Eric Robbins’ 35mm lensing is rich and textured, sensitively exploring but never prettying up the dusty New Mexico locations. The climactic siege, which takes up roughly a third of the film, benefits from sensible, easily followed geography. And Jumpy delivers one of the most charismatic canine performances since the late Uggie in “The Artist,” not only performing impressive tricks, but also providing Hawke with more palpable chemistry than any of his human co-stars.
So why does the whole film, impressive as it is, flutter by with such a whimper? Perhaps it’s West’s decision to play the verbal duels straight and the pistol duels as jokes, robbing the former of any juicy, literate patter, and the latter of real emotional stakes or tension. 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.
If “In a Valley of Violence” ends up being largely enjoyable all the same, a good deal of credit ought to go to composer Jeff Grace, whose Morricone-indebted score hits all the right notes and helps keep the picture tonally on track.