Published at: Sept. 24, 2006, 11:03 p.m. CST by staff
Hi, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab...
If you read a review in which someone excitedly explains to you how A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE is a huge departure for director David Cronenberg, a radical reinvention of what it is that he does, feel free to stop reading that review because that person either has no idea what they’re talking about, or they simply don’t understand his work.
This is not a departure from his earlier work. In fact, it fits neatly into his filmography and expands on themes and ideas that have obsessed this brilliant filmmaker for decades now. Working from an exceptionally lean and smart screenplay by Josh Olson (adapted from the graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke), Cronenberg has crafted a film that feels more like BLUE VELVET than it does like THE FLY, but the surface is deceptive. This is a monster movie, just as surely as anything he’s ever done, and the monster in this film is our own capacity for violence as well as our innate attraction to it.
Cronenberg has always been a political filmmaker. His films are unflinching, and the reason he makes people so uncomfortable isn’t because of gore, but because he forces you to address ideas that make you uncomfortable, and he refuses to let you off the hook by wrapping everything up in happy endings. By “political,” I don’t mean he makes movies about Republicans and Democrats, but rather that he courts controversy fearlessly, and he dares to plumb some of the darker corners of the human psyche. If you’ve seen the trailers for A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE, then you know the set-up by now: Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) is a small-town guy, the owner of a diner and the father of two kids. He’s been married to his wife Edie (Maria Bello) for a while now, and the two of them are still deeply in love. He lives a fairly idyllic life until the night two thugs wander into his diner at closing time and try to kill his waitress while terrorizing everyone in the place. Tom leaps into action, moving with a startling efficiency, and kills both of the thugs. It’s a shocking sequence, and Cronenberg uses the language of big Hollywood action films here, making it exciting on purpose.
The local news canonizes Tom as a hero, plastering his face all over TV and newspapers, and for a few days, he’s a big story. He wants the whole thing to blow over, but instead, it attracts more attention, the kind he can’t afford. When Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris) rolls into town, his henchmen in tow, Tom doesn’t seem to recognize them. They know him, though, and not as Tom Stall. Instead, they keep calling him “Joey Cusack,” and they’re convinced he used to be a killer in Philadephia, someone they are determined to find. Is this a misunderstanding? Or does Tom have secrets that his family never even guessed were there? The film raises questions about how well you ever really know someone, and because Olson and Cronenberg largely abandoned the second half of the graphic novel, they were able to focus on the really provocative material, the character stuff, and that choice pays off in one of the year’s most difficult, demanding films.
All of Cronenberg’s usual collaborators are involved this time, including director of photography Peter Suschitzky, who he’s worked with ever since DEAD RINGERS, as well as editor Ron Sanders and production designer Carol Spier. I would argue that his most important collaborator is Howard Shore, his composer. Shore’s been best known for the last few years as the composer of the LORD OF THE RINGS films, as well as the upcoming KING KONG, but I’ve always had a particular fondness for the work he does with Cronenberg. Once again, he contributes an operatic score that underlines the whole movie with a sort of throbbing dread. It’s a big score, and the person I saw the film with felt like it took them out of the movie. I can see why. Cronenberg’s films are wrapped in a controlled style that isn’t meant to approximate real life. This is a heightened reality, slightly surreal, and the score is a big part of that. It works for me, though, and I think it’s bold. That hyperreality isn’t just a stylistic choice, though. It’s subtext in this film. We’re so soaked in action films as a culture at this point that we imagine every confrontation in our lives in action movie terms, whether we mean to or not. Kids are raised to see the world as a Joel Silver movie, and “kicking ass” is a viable alternative in solving any problem. Cronenberg makes sure you remember this is a movie all the way through, but in a way, he’s simply giving voice to what these characters are already expressing.
Ashton Holmes plays Jack, Tom’s teenage son, and it’s a textured performance that works on a lot of levels. We already know that teenagers are prone to the dramatic, viewing their lives as grand drama. There’s a prick (played with excessive intensity by Kyle Schmid) who bullies Jack at school, and it seems like it starts over nothing at all. It escalates quickly, though, and Jack tries to talk his way out of each fight. After his father finally reveals his penchant for violence, though, Jack unleashes his own rage in a fight that happens lightning quick and ends up hospitalizing the bully. Again... Cronenberg stages the fight like it’s a Steven Segal movie, with perfectly thrown punches and bone-crunching sound effects that almost blow out the speakers in the theater. He’s careful to never use any slow motion, though. These fights are fast, and you almost don’t see them. You get a sense of incredible speed and power, and then they’re over. What is it that this scene’s supposed to imply? Did Jack inherit his father’s knack for dishing out pain to others? Is it inherent, something he can’t escape? Or is it simply that he’s been empowered by his father’s encounter, allowing him to tap that thing we all carry inside of us? The film doesn’t offer you the answers, either... just the questions that it wants you to consider later.
I’ll admit that my first reaction after seeing the film was surprise that the MPAA passed it with an R rating, but it’s not the violence that I thought they’d have a problem with... it’s the sexuality. They’ve stonewalled Cronenberg on his sexually themed material before, most notably with CRASH, and there’s no question that the scenes he included here (added late in the process by Olson at Cronenberg’s request) are crucial to the development of these characters. They’re also frank and adult and completely honest, and even though they don’t cross any sort of line by showing penetration, they suggest real sexuality in a way that most movie scenes don’t. They serve as a sort of road map to the relationship between Tom and Edie. In the first scene, everything between them is perfect, and their sex is passionate, playful, and fully connected. Later in the film, after Edie realizes that she doesn’t know the man she’s married to, there’s a sex scene on a staircase that is violent, angry, all about the struggle to redefine who they are to one another. I’ve read a few people describe the scene as rape, but they’re wrong. This is consensual, but confused, two people simply trying to figure out how they fit together once all the rules have changed.
Cronenberg is one of the great actor’s directors working right now, something he doesn’t get enough credit for. He directed Jeff Goldblum to one of his best performances in THE FLY, he got remarkable work out of Peter Weller and Judy Davis in NAKED LUNCH, he managed to get Jeremy Irons to give two of his best performances in DEAD RINGERS, and he pushed Ralph Fiennes further than anyone else ever has in SPIDER. His respect for actors is evident in the way he creates spaces for them, allowing them to try anything. Now he’s given Viggo Mortensen a chance to get back to the edgy character work that first made me notice him in Sean Penn’s THE INDIAN RUNNER. I think it’s fascinating that Viggo took the detour into LORD OF THE RINGS and international movie stardom, but I’m willing to bet we don’t see that sort of thing from him in the future. He’s always been the type of actor who likes to vanish into roles, playing people on the fringe, broken souls with the potential for trouble. If you see this film twice, you’ll see two different performances from Viggo, and that’s the real genius of the movie. The first time through, you’re watching him the same way his family is, accepting him as Tom Stall, loving family man, quiet and kind and nearly invisible. But when you see it a second time, you’ll see Joey Cusack lurking behind those eyes, pushing through even in the moments before the thugs bring violence back into his life. You can’t really change your nature, no matter how much you want to. The best you can hope for is to control it, and that’s all that Tom has managed. That control slips away from him little by little over the course of the film, and by the end, he seems to realize that Tom is just a mask, something he wore to hide himself from the people around him. That mask is gone, and Tom’s going to have to embrace his nature. Much of the work that Viggo does in the film is non-verbal, and he deserves praise for the subtle way he switches in and out of his two personas. Maria Bello is equally good as his wife, and she continues to define herself as an actor unafraid of any material. It goes beyond her willingness to be naked onscreen. The scene where she first confronts Tom about her suspicions that he is indeed Joey is a powerhouse, and the final scene in the film is one of the year’s most remarkable moments, raw and painful and almost too much to bear. The connection she formed with Viggo comes through loud and clear onscreen, and anyone who wants to see what great film acting looks like should check out their work together.
The supporting cast is uniformly good, but the two standouts are Ed Harris and William Hurt. Harris has been a reliable presence in film for so long that it shouldn’t surprise anyone that he does great work here, but Hurt’s been missing in action for a while. When he first appears, he’s almost unrecognizable. He relishes every second of his role, and he makes it count. Although this isn’t a comedy, he brings a jet-black comic sensibility to his scenes that’s hard to deny, and there’s one reaction shot in particular that had me shaking. It’s a brief appearance, but it’s a reminder of just how impressive he can be when he’s used correctly.
The film has a great opening scene and a great closing scene, and those bookends really do frame the story perfectly. Like I said, Josh Olson’s screenplay is a marvel, one of those adaptations that improves on the source material because it makes so many smart choices. An ending like this one is tricky because it demands that the audience have a reaction. You won’t be spoon-fed anything by this film, and for that reason, it may confuse some viewers who are used to be told exactly what to feel at each moment. For anyone who wants to be treated like an adult in a theater and who is interested in exploring the uneasy relationship that we have with violence as a culture, this is a must-see, a challenge worth accepting. More than anything, it proves that David Cronenberg is still working at the peak of his creative powers, and that’s very good news, indeed.
I’ll have my interview with Cronenberg ready for you by the end of the weekend, and I think it came together really well. He’s just as fascinating in person as his films are onscreen, so hopefully it’ll be a good read. In the meantime, I’ve got some more reviews to get ready. Until then...