Saturday, October 01, 2005

Day 1: A History of Violence

Carl Fogaty: You should ask Tom... how come he's so good at killing people?

A fair warning. I may have spoilers in here. Sorry. There is too much about this film to talk about without them. Go see it and then come read this.

The American Dream
David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence is a film that demands a second viewing. There’s nothing “twisty” to it, nothing gimmicky demanding a second viewing like the ending to The Sixth Sense. It’s the bigness of the movie’s emotional weight that calls me back to it. It’s the way it escalates and ends so perfectly. But mostly it’s the way it explores its many ideas about the seductive power of violence, the futility of this violence, the deconstruction of the American family, and the myth of a noble protector. Some are placed under complete scrutiny, some are working deftly in the background, and still others are brought up to be examined and then quickly swept aside for the next idea. This is a very rich movie. The reason I want to go back to it someday is the implicit knowledge that this movie will only get better with each viewing of it.

The story centers on Tom Stall, an average Joe with a loving family who lives in the prototypical Hollywood Small Town™. He runs a small diner, commiserates with regulars, tells his blonde daughter that there are no monsters, and struggles with accepting his teenage son’s growing maturity. Nothing new here. Though Tom’s life is depicted with a certain mawkishness and the kind of reverence for the simplicity of small town life that has, as far as I know, never existed outside of cinema, there is an uncomfortability that permeates each beat we go through with our main character. A lot of this can be attributed to Viggo Mortenson’s performance. Here he acts like a man who has been given the perfect American life and isn’t quite sure that he belongs there. As a result, the opening of this movie feels a bit muddled, and at times, plodding. That’s on the first viewing. I imagine on the second, it will carry a greater significance since each bit of information it drops pays back tenfold later in the film. (Last chance: spoilers ahead)

As the movie reveals (after adeptly teasing us with mystery for a few scenes), Tom is not who he says he is. He has kept secret a former life where he was known as Joey Cusack (one assumes that he’s the missing third in the John-Joan-Joey Cusack trifecta of brilliance), a man who engaged in violent acts and had some connection to the mafia. At some point, Joey repented and reinvented himself as goody Tom Stall and, at the time of the movie’s beginning, considers “Joey” dead.

The plot machinations are interesting enough, but they pale in comparison to the way the movie considers acts of violence. I was grateful for the ways in which Cronenberg never let acts of violence pass without serious consequences. If there was ever an argument for the use of graphic gore effects, this movie is it. When someone gets shot in the face, the result is horrific. Whenever a gun appears onscreen, the tension rises palpably. There is real pain and real horror here (with a special nod to the scene in the diner as building to its climax exactly right).

Additionally, the movie explored not only the horror of violence, but also the seductive quality it has. Tom’s son physically demolishes a bully in school in a very satisfying scene for anyone who’s ever been picked on and Tom’s wife, while being suitably furious and disgusted at Tom for lying to her, is not exactly turned off by the situation.

The audience I saw it with was telling. It’s odd to me when an audience is audibly more uncomfortable with acts of sex than with someone being killed, but hey... that’s something else the movie deals with in a fascinating way. In fact, there’s just too much to write about. One could go on about the view this movie takes of the ideal American family, the way violence permeates our society on a very fundamental level… but I'm afraid those things will have to wait for my graduate thesis when I have more time.

The movie does have its flaws. Mortenson’s performance is a bit uneven and some of the dialogue is a little clunky. The structure of the movie seems a bit odd at times… the beginning gives the killers Tom later disposes of an emphasis that they don’t seem to deserve for their purposes in the larger storyline. Howard Shore’s score doesn’t quite work at the beginning. And, of course, the beginning itself may be as awkward and clumsy as I felt on my first viewing. Having said this, the movie is otherwise well crafted by all involved and William Hurt nearly steals the movie from Cronenberg in his role as Joey's brother late in the film. It’s certainly among the best of Cronenberg’s films and I know I’ll be thinking of it for years to come.

Oh yeah, the movie really, really knows exactly how to end.


sb said...

thank you! This movie is getting some coverage. Heard a review on NPR today. Your review is thought provoking and informative. I think I have found a reviewer I can trust in you!
Will start a "must see" list.

M. Gants v4.0 said...

Is the "bully demolishing" scene as awesome as the one depicted in A Christmas Story? If so, I'm totally seeing this movie...hehe.

ladyjay said...

I am so glad that you reviewed this movie. I thought it was an excellent film, and was disappointed by the bad press that it was receiving. I, too, will have to view it again to get the full effect. The ending is great!!