When we first meet Paul (Ethan Hawke) in horror director Ti West’s first foray into the western genre, he and his dog Abbie are on a long, tired trek to Mexico. Paul, a weary ex-soldier, likes the idea that in Mexico, no one speaks English. He’s had enough of people after what he did in the Indian Wars and he just wants to be left alone.
Of course, Abbie is a lot more company than most dogs, full of clever tricks and the best guard dog any cowpoke ever had. (We assume Abbie is a she, although played by the male Jumpy the Dog, who is known as “the most well-trained dog in America” and whose owner/trainer is the same guy who owned Uggie of “The Artist” fame).
SPOILERS from here on out. Although the essential plot of the film is right there on the short synopsis on Rottentomatoes and other sites.
The relationship between man and dog is touching. They only have each other and for a broken man like Paul, this is likely the only companionship he can handle.
So it’s all the more gut-wrenching (seriously, bring a tissue or five), when a small-town sheriff’s son (James Ransone) zeroes in on Abbie as a way to get back at Paul for humiliating him earlier.
Yes, like “John Wick,” this is a movie about a man who gets a whole lot of revenge on the people who killed his dog. Except that in that action movie, the dog was a puppy who’d only been given to Wick a few days earlier. And she was killed quickly and (we hope) painlessly.) Sadly, Abbie’s death isn’t quick and we have to watch Paul — helplessly pinned down by henchmen — beg for his dog’s life. Good luck not sobbing through that scene.
After Abbie is dead and the villains think Paul is also dead, he rides back into town to exact vengeance on everyone who killed Abbie.
This is Hawke’s second western this year (and the second where he plays a man haunted by past deeds) and this is by far a stronger film that “The Magnificent Seven,” although he’s excellent in both. And John Travolta, as the crooked, one-legged sheriff of Denton, gives his best performance in years. Without silly hairpieces (just a cowboy hat and an uncharacteristic beard), the actor reminds us just how great he was in “Pulp Fiction” and what a way he has with seemingly unwieldy dialogue.
Of course, his casting isn’t the only nod to Quentin Tarantino: The violence (which isn’t as extreme as you’d expect from the film’s title) and offbeat humor are all a tip of the hat to QT, as is the score, with its Ennio Morricone-esque flourishes. That’s not a bad thing, necessarily.
I just wish the film hadn’t tipped quite so far over into slapstick. While Travolta, Hawke and the villainous Ransone (who previously teamed with Hawke in “Sinister”) all manage the shifts in tone admirably, it doesn’t seem right by Abbie to go from an ice-cold revenge film to a comical showdown in the middle of Main Street.
I’m still recommending the movie, despite the harrowing scene of the dog’s death and despite the uneven tone. If you’re still sad at the film’s end, just watch some of Jumpy’s videos on YouTube. And rest easy that bad guy Ransone is a dog lover in real life. (Photograph proof here and here.)
Moviepaws Rating: 3 out of 4 paws