There are many things that the movies can teach us, but — at least in recent years — none have been punctuated with a bullet quite like the lesson that you should never get between a man and his dog. It didn’t work out too well for the naïve gangsters who killed Keanu Reeves’ beagle in “John Wick,” and it doesn’t work out too well for the misfit hooligans who try to do the same to Ethan Hawke’s loyal collie in Ti West’s “In a Valley of Violence.”
There’s no quicker, cleaner, or cuter way of getting an audience to root for a hero than by threatening to separate him from his pup. The imperiled dog is the plot device you bust out when you want to cut through the gristle and get to the good stuff — the imperiled dog is the perfect mechanism for characters who aren’t designed to grow so much as they are to explode.
In other words, the first oater from slow-burn horror maestro Ti West (“The Innkeepers”) isn’t exactly “The Searchers.” If anything, this bare-bones throwback is such a straight shooter that it makes the hyper-linear “High Noon” feel like “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” For much of this handsomely-lensed but palpably unambitious film, it feels as though West was so happy to be playing with classic Western tropes that he never bothered adding anything to them. Audiences who are just looking for a bone to chew on might have fun gnawing at this, but others will wonder where all the meat has gone.
Paul (Hawke, whose long shadow and beatnik casualness reveal him to be a natural gunslinger) is a mysterious drifter who’s cutting a path to Mexico and shooting anyone that gets between him and the border. Details from his unremarkable past trickle out over time, but it’s clear from the start that he isn’t interested in looking over his shoulder at the country he’s leaving behind, or reflect on whatever part he may have played in its Civil War. Paul’s only companion: A bright, battle-tested collie named Abbie (Jumpy the dog, in one of the year’s great breakout performances). The Sundance Kid to her master’s Butch Cassidy, Abbie is Paul’s only friend, and he’s been traveling with her for so long that he’s grown a bit alienated from other people (“I’m so used to talking to you that I barely know what to say when somebody speaks back,” he mutters after one of expository monologues).
Of course, any Western hero is only as good as the dusty town he blows through. That’s bad news for Paul, whose trail South cuts through Denton, Texas, a no-horse shit-hole that looks like the abandoned set of a bigger movie that ran out of money. Most of the population has headed for the hills — that’s what you get for settling in a place known as the “Valley of Violence” — but the men who remain are itching for a fight, and the handful of women left to keep them company are itching for new men. If the local marshal (John Travolta in a goofy, extended cameo) has decided to stick around, it’s only because his jackass son Gilly (James Ransone, the pimp from “Tangerine”) needs to be policed at all times. Paul isn’t in the saloon for five minutes before he feels compelled to punch Gilly in the face, and Gilly — a cowardly sadist who proves his manhood by serving as the grim reaper of his ghost town — leads a posse after the drifter and his dog. Unstoppable force, meet immovable object.
Less purposeful than last year’s “Bone Tomahawk,” less mannered than “The Hateful Eight,” and less gruesome than either (a bit of a let-down when considering West’s credentials), “In a Valley of Violence” is a tepid pastiche that’s a touch too comfortable with its own lack of vision. Fortunately, West comes at this material from a place of love, and his film’s most familiar moments reflect the greatest of what the genre has to offer. Expertly choreographed, and kissed with our strange nostalgia for a lawless fantasy world, the inevitable climactic shootout suggests that West has watched enough Ford and Peckinpah to know that all the best showdowns feel like bad theater.
But the action only sparks with purpose during the scenes when it abandons its misfit cast of men and all of the dull posturing that West uses to define them; the female characters, while relegated to supporting roles, are nevertheless responsible for what little verve the film has of its own. Taissa Farmiga (so promising in “6 Years”) is wonderful as the motor-mouthed Mary-Anne, a 16-year-old widow who takes a shine to Paul and talks him into revealing his past. Karen Gillan (of “Dr. Who” fame) shines in the comparatively thankless role of Gilly’s wife.
West’s script doesn’t allow Paul and Mary-Anne to spend much time together, but “In a Valley of Violence” sparks into something more in the brief moments when both characters share the screen, the chatty girl chipping away at Paul’s brittle exoskeleton of loneliness — he’s given up on this world and everyone in it, but Mary-Anne isn’t having any it (“There’s no sense of being difficult,” she snipes at her new friend’s view of the world, “you make do with what you can”). The idea of a good woman bringing a gunslinger to heel is hardly a novel idea, but Farmiga’s animated performance reaches well beyond the range of West’s film, confronting the immutable male mystique at the heart of a genre where vulnerable men are always the first to die. “I’m not here to save you,” Paul barks at Mary-Anne, but his story only grows more interesting as it grapples with the idea that he’s the one who needs saving.
It’s frustrating that West often scores with his few modest attempts to stamp his own imprint on the genre, as those flashes of fun hint at what this movie could have been. Buried beneath Jeff Grace’s stampeding Western score are a handful of less familiar inflections, including a couple of solid jump-scares, the occasional dose of contemporary humor, and an ill-fated duel for the ages. As a eulogy for genre, “In a Valley of Violence” has little to say, but as an exorcism it shows some real spirit. Oh, and the dog is real cute.
“In a Valley of Violence” premiered at SXSW 2016, and will play at BAMCinemaFest this week. Focus World will release it on September 16th.