Saturday, June 6, 2009

A History of Violence

There's something deliciously ironic about David Croneneberg making a film about our collective obsession with violence. Cronenberg, who came to prominence in the '80s with hits like Videodrome and his remake of The Fly, has devoted his entire career to ultra-violent depictions of bodily functions and transformations. His most beloved films are caked in blood as gory exaggerations of boils, cancers, even sexual organs rip open the flesh of his poor characters to further whatever metaphor he's pushing this time. The thought of him breaking out a soapbox to tell us we need to spend less time watching the R-rated action extravaganzas is downright hilarious.

Nevertheless, some people deserve the benefit of the doubt, and Cronenberg certainly qualifies, so I decided to give the film a shot. Based on the graphic novel of the same name, A History of Violence charts the path of Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen), who runs a diner in a small Indiana town. He's got a loving wife (Maria Bello) and two kids, and he lives in general contentment. Then one day two men walk into the diner at closing time. We know something will go wrong, because we saw them in an earlier scene, and they just look like the sort of people to cause trouble. When they pull out guns, Tom leaps over the counter and murders them both in seconds.

Tom is stunned by his actions, but the media quickly makes him into a hero, as witnesses remark how "amazing" he was in action. Tom looks forward to the whole thing blowing over, but then two more men come to the diner, this time in fancy suits. The leader, Fogarty, has deep scars on his face and calls Tom "Joey," insisting that the two knew each other in Philadelphia. Stall says that the man is mistaken but is clearly distressed. Before long, the man and his thugs show up at Tom's house and, well, watch for yourself.

The plot of A History of Violence is almost too-thin, especially coming from the man who took us on such dense, nigh-impenetrable journeys in the past. But its starkness is its strength: Cronenberg does not revel in blood but restricts it to horrific yet disturbingly satisfying outbursts. It's not exactly tense, but it is taut, and it keeps you riveted even though you can see every twist coming (thanks in no small part to the spoiler-ridden trailer that kept me from viewing this film for years). However, Cronenberg's aim here isn't simply going from A to B, leaving a trail of dead behind him. No, the director uses the rail-thin plot to examine our infatuation with violence and how our bloodlust perpetuates itself. Cronenberg does not spare any gory details -- I don't know what a head really looks like when it's just been blasted off with a shotgun, but I have an inclination now -- but these scenes do not feel gratuitous, instead forcing us to contemplate the consequences of our actions. If any scene could be construed as celebratory, Croenenberg does not allow the feeling to last for long.

Take the scene where Tom's teenage son Jack viciously beats a bully who has tormented him all year. It's shocking but also rewarding, and you can't help but feel a surge of glee as the timid kid finally stands up to the bully. Why is it that I felt somewhat euphoric in that scene, but cool and impassive when Jack first ignores the bully and responds to the kid's insults with some barbs of his own? Before I can mull it over, Cronenberg abruptly cuts to Tom lecturing his son about the futility of violence, only to harshly slap his son when the boy points the hypocrisy of a killer condemning a fistfight. That slap turns the vaguely triumphant mood chilly in an instant. Clearly, in this scene Tom represents the director: a man with a past in gore warning us about desensitization and the admiration of violence even as he fills the screen yet again with death and brutality.

Overall, the film is a successful depiction of how Darwinian evolution has instilled in us all a certain love of violence, but I wonder if the story of this tested family can so easily gloss over the very real problem of violence in our culture. Viggo and Ed Harris put in great work, symbols of rugged masculinity attempting to pull away from the violence inherent in that image but never able to break free. Bello's Edie starts strong as the more aggressive of the couple, but when the roles reverse she becomes almost inconsequential; does her husband's violence scare her, or kinda turn her on? Still, let's not even dwell on how William Hurt's four-minute stint of scenery-chewing garnered an Oscar nomination. A History of Violence is ultimately noteworthy for relaunching Cronenberg's commercial viability and a tonal shift to starker displays of brutality that would inform his superior Eastern Promises (also starring Mortensen), but it's still an interesting metaphor for our unsettling celebration of aggression. So interesting, in fact, that I feel I need to watch the film again, perhaps after revisiting Eastern Promises to size up the two. Who knows; there's a lot to love in this film, quite possibly more than I caught the first time.

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