Consider this a spoiler, but dog lovers should know that Abbie, the clever, insanely captivating canine character in Ti West’s scraggy western In a Valley of Violence, does not make it through alive. West takes care not to manipulate emotions with her death, but he has a bigger issue. When the dog dies at the end of the film’s disreputably enjoyable first act, the movie’s spirit dies too, never to recover.
Ethan Hawke brings sober, snaggletoothed grandeur to Paul, a former cavalryman ambling through the desert with Abbie, looking to atone for unnamed sins. When Paul stops in a small town, he runs afoul of local miscreants (led by James Ransone’s Gilly), and trouble follows even after the marshal (John Travolta) lets him off the hook.
Hawke’s scenes with Abbie have a salty, convivial vibe, but horror-picture phenom West, making his first foray into westerns, doesn’t control the tone. Its somber, bone-dry gruffness crumbles to dust, only to be replaced by adolescent jokiness. The movie’s ending is little more than a fizzle. But wow, what a dog. The extraordinary animal actor Jumpy, a border collie mix with fabulous speckled legs and alert triangles for ears, listens attentively to every word from his master’s mouth, comprehending nothing yet understanding everything.
This appears in the November 07, 2016 issue of TIME.