Saturday, October 01, 2005

Cronenberg's A History of Violence

A History of ViolenceTonight we went to see David Cronenberg's newest film, A History of Violence. Based on John Wagner's and Vince Locke's 1997 graphic novel and adapted by Josh Olson, the movie has received praise in various quarters, including some rapturous encomiums in the New York Times, onNPR, and elsewhere, and was even nominated for the Golden Palm award at this year's Cannes Film Festival.

The film stars Viggo Mortensen as Tom Stall, a Midwestern small-town diner owner who's married to an attractive and very loving lawyer, Edie (Maria Bello). They have two children, a wimpy, witty teenage son (Ashton Holmes) and an annoyingly darling young daughter (Heidi Hayes). After two itinerant robbers happen upon Stall's diner, he heroically kills them both and saves his waitress, cook, and two diners, which provokes national acclaim, as well as the notice of a band of Irish-American mobsters from Philadelphia (led by a one and half-eyed Ed Harris), who arrive in town to settle what they claim are old scores. In fact, they claim that Tom Stall isn't really who he appears to be at all; they say he's really Joey Cusack, highly-skilled and proficient killer who went on the lam years ago. I won't spoil the movie for anyone who hasn't seen it, but I will say that while it excels in some areas--especially in William Hurt's marvelous but far too short performance near the end of the film--it is quite predictable overall, extremely violent (to the point of being lurid, though I ultimately think the gore is necessary), and doesn't provide the payoff that all the hype around it portends.

In fact, I would suggest that people who haven't seen it ignore the rhapsodies and take it on its own terms. Its greatest strength, I believe, is as a cinematic example of dramatic irony, verging on parody at times, that might simultaneously have you bursting into laughter at the ridiculousness and patness of the iconography and mythmaking even as the violence horrifies and unsettles you. In this regard, I thought as we were exiting the theater of David Lynch's Blue Velvet, which works a similarly disturbing vein, though the older film is much sharper, more perverse and pushes the irony much farther; Lynch's portrait is more explicit and acute in its view of the dark underside of American life. Yet another film that came to mind was American Beauty, though that over-praised movie is far more concerned with class relations--or the standard upper-middle-class reading of class relations--and sexual repression than Cronenberg's.

Indeed, in Cronenberg's film, it's sometimes hard to tell exactly how he wants us to read the irony, and react. He intends, I believe, for the candy-coated scenarios and portrayals and soundtrack to weave together an idealized tapestry of visual and dramatic clichés (sometimes to the point of hilarity), and yet the sheer ruthlessness of the violence and the near-explicit sex scenes points us in another direction, a counter-ideal. This is the barely suppressed id of American life, the roiling, volcanic unconscious that erupts after a fashion, lurking behind pruned hedges and locked doors and handsome, placid, "All-American" faces like Stall's. In those blue eyes, storms are constantly building, Cronenberg appears to say. In this film, there were no dark "Others"; the rage and brutality resided in the almost all-White main characters. One thing I did find novel: the mobsters for once weren't Italian (which made me immediately think of Boston's wiley arch-criminal Whity Bulger and the Irish mob, which plays a role here; in fact, that city plays a mention in the plot).

I did wish, however, after leaving the film, that filmmakers would portray Americans as we really are: for example, where are the heavyset, overworked and underpaid or underworked and underpaid, working-class and poor, average-looking people--of all races--who predominate in the sorts of towns in which A History of Violence is set? Do filmmakers think Americans wouldn't go see movies about them (us/our[true]selves)? Would the foreign audiences, who constitute an increasing share of the take, also not buy such films? I wonder, and I wish more filmmakers would take the challenge.

Still, I found the surface-depth dialectic interesting enough, and recommend the film, though I don't think it's as well done as In the Bedroom, Blue Velvet or American Beauty (a film I disliked), or even Cronenberg's truly bizarre and unforgettable Crash. It is certainly far better--far more truthful--than Paul Haggis's utter car-wreck of a Crash of earlier this year at plumbing one aspect of American life. Perhaps other filmmakers will dare themselves to go even further.

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