Western tropes are delivered up with some shrewd satire, a dollop of horror-movie gore and an ersatz Morricone score in Ti West’s “In a Valley of Violence,” a genially goofy oater that’s not quite clever enough to be more than an amusing trifle.
It’s a simple revenge story, of the sort that Sergio Leone reveled in, but with a twist: the hero, a drifter named Paul (Ethan Hawke), will take on a dusty border town because the villains have killed not his wife or his family, but his ‘dawg.’ Abbie, played by a remarkably adept canine called Jumpy, is indeed a remarkable animal, whose show of loyalty to his partner—and ability to charm with his tricks—are certainly impressive. But the degree of Paul’s attachment to the dog adds a note of absurdity to the proceedings.
Abbie and Paul, who’s on the run to Mexico after going AWOL from the army (the reason for his flight shown briefly in flashback), reach the dismal little town of Denton after an encounter with an itinerant preacher (Burn Gorman) in which the dog exhibits his protective side. There Paul has a run-in with a loudmouth would-be bad-ass named Gilly (James Ransone), which ends badly for the latter; only later does Paul find out that Gilly is the son and deputy of the town marshal (John Travolta). And though the purported lawman simply tells him to get out of town (and warns Gilly not to hurt him), the reckless young man and his confederates attack him on the trail, killing Abbie and leaving Paul for dead.
He’s not, of course, and though he’s a no Eastwood or Bronson, he eventually returns to Denton to clear the place out with a little assistance from talkative Maryanne (Taissa Farmiga), the hotel clerk whose older sister (Karen Gillan) is Gilly’s adoring girlfriend.
Much of the fun of the movie comes from West’s cheeky nods to the conventions of the genre. His staging of a shoot-out between Paul and Gilly, for example, is made ridiculous by the fact that the marshal is situated between them, trying desperately to talk them out of shooting—an effort that proves a fatal error. And when the showdown between Paul and Gilly rolls around, it follows almost exactly the beats of the big finale between Denzel Washington and Peter Sarsgaard in the recent remake of “The Magnificent Seven,” down to a nearly identical abrupt intervention.
The effect is somewhat undercut, however, by the fact that unlike Quentin Tarantino, who now has big money behind him, West continues to work in threadbare mode, so that his toying with topoi is far less extravagant and perfectly calibrated. That doesn’t mean that the scenes he’s mounted with production designer Jade Healy and cinematographer Eric Robbins (while serving as editor himself) aren’t amusing as copies with humorous quirks added to them. But it does mean that they aren’t as winning as they might have been. And the occasional horror touches—like the killing of one of the villains in a bathtub—feel, with all the bloodletting, like ill-conceived intrusions.
Nor are the performances all they might be. Hawke certainly manages a scruffy, world-weary manner, but he never brings the character into full focus, perhaps because it’s too sketchily written; Travolta seems miscast, though he manages some offhandedly oddball intonations; and Ransone overdoes the shouting so badly that he comes across as simply amateurish rather than a satiric take on an overwrought gunman. Farmiga, on the other hand, is charmingly voluble and vulnerable, and Jumpy is a genuine scene-stealer. Jeff Grace’s flavorful score is another plus.
At once homage and send-up, “In a Valley of Violence” doesn’t manage to meld the two skillfully enough to avoid ending up an unsteady mix. But it comes close enough to merit a look.