When a man sidles up to a bar in a Western, it matters what he says. Maybe he orders whiskey, or milk in a dirty glass. But a lot is on the line.
A few minutes into “In a Valley of Violence,” a dusty stranger makes his request at the bar. “Water,” he says. “In a bowl.”
All right, we are intrigued. Maybe this Western will be a little different, or at least its hero will be.
It doesn’t take too long to figure out that Paul (Ethan Hawke) is traveling with a dog, and that the dog is thirsty too. But things are about to get weirder for this Civil War veteran, who really just wants to be left in peace. (In which case he shouldn’t have gone through a place called the “Valley of Violence,” but whatever.)
He’s wandered into one of those towns that’s run by a strong-arm sheriff (John Travolta), who—an irony here—would also prefer to be left in peace.
Problem is, the sheriff’s idiot son (James Ransome) wants to push Paul around. And worse, he wants to push Paul’s dog around. If you saw “John Wick,” you have a pretty good idea of what happens when bad guys mess with the hero’s dog.
Although it seems jokey at times, and director Ti West (“The Sacrament”) gets a little cute with the spaghetti Western references, this movie eventually finds itself. There’s just enough variation on Western clichés to keep it watchable.
A good cast helps a lot: Hawke makes sure his wanderer has just enough Clint Eastwood mystery, but he’s also panicky and vulnerable. Travolta seems to relish his part, a weary lawman who is truly, truly reluctant to have to go through with all the showdown-in-main-street stuff.
Ransome’s skeezy sidekicks get some amusing moments; the super-reliable Toby Huss plays a guy who’d really rather not be hanging around with these varmints, but a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do when there’s nothing else going on.
West doesn’t think of much for the female characters to do, so the spirited efforts of Taissa Farmiga and Karen Gillan (from “Guardians of the Galaxy”) are pretty much a wash.
When the showdown in Main Street finally comes, it’s clever enough. But that’s the limitation of this movie. “Clever enough” just isn’t going to stick to your ribs, even if you like Westerns.
‘In a Valley of Violence’ (2½ stars)
A stranger (Ethan Hawke) wanders into a Western town, where the sheriff (John Travolta) can’t control his psycho son (James Ransome). There’s enough variation here to keep the movie watchable, and Hawke and Travolta are fun to watch — but finally this never goes beyond the mildly clever.
Rated: R, for violence
Showing: Sundance Cinemas