Movie Review: “In a Valley of Violence”

Starring
Ethan Hawke, John Travolta, James Ransone, Taissa Farmiga, Karen Gillan
Director
Ti West

Filmmaker Ti West has made his most conventionally enjoyable movie to date. Best known for horror films like “The House of the Devil,” “The Innkeepers” and “The Sacrament,” West tackles a new genre with “In a Valley of Violence,” a western starring Ethan Hawke and John Travolta. While West’s previous films get you squirming, his latest effort may have you cheering thanks to its sparse, enigmatic storytelling.

Paul (Hawke) isn’t exactly a loner. Although he’s tortured and on a path to nowhere, he has Abby at his side. Abby is his dog, and she sometimes looks after him just as much as he looks after her. When Paul enters the rundown town of Denton, nicknamed the “valley of violence,” he crosses paths with the hotheaded Gilly (James Ransone), the son of local sheriff, The Marshal (Travolta). Gilly thinks he’s the most dangerous man in town and challenges any man who questions his power. But when Paul leaves him bloodied, bruised and embarrassed after a beating that in no way constitues as a fight, Gilly and his men go after Paul’s dog for revenge, unaware that they’re dealing with one seriously flawed, dangerous military man who’s trained to kill. As Paul puts it, Gilly and his men left him with nothing, and he’s going to leave them with even less.

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The Light from the TV Shows: Getting Your Scare On with “American Horror Story”

The Television Critics Association press tour is always an exciting opportunity to mingle with my TV critic peers, meet and greet with the individuals involved in the latest and greatest (and otherwise) new series, and get the scoop on what we’ll all be seeing on the small screen over the course of the subsequent six months. This summer’s tour was the first time I didn’t subsequently write up my recollections of the event – my only excuse lies in the lyrics of John Lennon: Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans” – but had I pulled together a list of highlights, one of them certainly would have been that I had the opportunity to head over to the 20th Century Fox lot and attend a special advance press screening of the pilot episode of FX’s “American Horror Story.”

Creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk were in attendance to introduce the pilot, along with cast member Connie Britton, and, as is par for the course for series creators when they’re standing in front of an audience of TV critics, Murphy and Falchuk seemed as excited for us to see the episode as they were nervous to learn what we thought of it. Indeed, unless they were skulking in the back of the auditorium, they didn’t stick around to witness our reactions to the events unfolding onscreen, let alone to hear any of our discussions after the closing credits had rolled.

It should come as no surprise to learn that critical reaction was mixed – I mean, that’s pretty much a given for any new series, right? – but if there was one recurring theme to the many conversations going on about “American Horror Story” during our post-screening dinner, it was that a great number of the people who wouldn’t necessarily commit to actually liking what they’d seen were at least willing to concede that it was going to stay near the forefront of their thoughts for quite some time to come…which, as it happens, is where I was with the show, too.

If you’ve seen the pilot, you can probably appreciate my position: it’s creepy, disconcerting, and, yes, there are a few legitimate scares amidst the cheap but effective made-ya-jump moments, but it’s also full of a multitude of horror tropes and plot devices, including (but not limited to) a haunted house, gory murders, ghostly apparitions, eccentric neighbors, a sinister stranger delivering a warning of impending tragedy, and a pregnancy possibly brought about by evil forces.

Was it memorable? Absolutely. Did it make an impact? I dare say it did: even though I didn’t know if I liked it, I already couldn’t wait to watch it again. Was it sufficiently intriguing for me to want to seek out a second episode? You better believe it. But even with these things said, in addition to getting the feeling that Murphy and Falchuk were throwing things against the wall to see what stuck, I was also left with nagging uncertainty about where the hell they were going with this thing.

Now that I’m six episodes into the proceedings, I’m far more confident about the situation, but I won’t lie to you: it was a little bit touch-and-go for a bit.

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