‘In a Valley of Violence’
Director:
Ti West
Stars: Ethan Hawke, John Travolta
Rating: R
2 (out of 5) Globes

In “House of the Devil” and “The Innkeepers,” Ti West did more than pay homage to old school horror: He inverted them. In the first, the build-up — i.e., the boring stuff — is the interesting part; the second spent most of its time as a rich study of the friendship one makes with a coworker at a dead end job. That they whiffed the big scares — i.e., the good stuff — was, in a way, perfect. Because he’s good with characters, there’s every reason to think West can work outside his most frequented genre. Maybe he could even make a Western that didn’t feel like a pastiche.

And yet “In a Valley of Violence” is a straight-up Western pastiche, and not even to one of the good ones. Like a lot of modern oaters, its reference points aren’t the classics by Ford and Hawks and Anthony Mann. Spaghetti Westerns are cooler, anyway. Despite the Sergio Leone titles and a score that seems to come from an Ennio Morricone computer program, “In a Valley of Violence” plays like one of the cheaper and forgettable Italian numbers, with a routine revenge story that seems more inspired by “Death Wish II.” Like that film, “Violence” seems to be begging us to twiddle our thumbs while our hero kills one guy who wronged him, then another, then another, until everyone’s in the ground and we can go home.

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The inciting incident, though, is pure “John Wick.” Ethan Hawke continues his impressive sojourn through genre cinema as Paul, a taciturn drifter whose only friend is an obedient dog. They saunter into Denton, a near-ghost town lorded over by Marshal Clyde Martin (John Travolta, with a wooden leg), who won’t let a spartan populace keep him from acting like the king of nothing. Paul wastes no time in inadvertently enraging the Marshal’s hothead son, Gilly (James Ransone). Humiliated during a speedy duel, Gilly gets his revenge by ambushing Paul, killing his dog and leaving him for dead. So Ethan decides to take out him and the three expendable underlings who helped him, despite promising his dog he’d never kill again, which is at least a nice touch.

That’s pretty much it, which should be fine: Again, West excels at finding the life in the corners and alleyways of genre junk. What’s surprising is how straight “In a Valley of Violence” plays things, making for a movie that simply gets to predictable narrative posts, and not fast. The first half makes for a better man-and-his-dog movie than a Western, and includes one notable bit of subversion: Rather than a one-note badass, Hawke’s Paul is an army deserter who’s not above pleading for his life when cornered.

By the time Paul’s out for frontier justice, he’s basically the Terminator, and the movie gets into the monotonous groove of one kill after another. One grisly throat slit belies West’s time in the horror biz, but another laboriously sets up what looks like a great, out-of-nowhere death then fumbles it with a punchline-shattering cut. This belies the lack of care and precision that West has put into his recreation, complete with stock threats like, “The time for beggin’ is over; now is the time for prayin’.” There’s a hint that West is joking, mostly thanks to the occasional, actual joke and a gallery of stylized performances. But what’s the joke?

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge