Sunday, September 11, 2005

A History of Violence


**Allow me a bit of a rant here**
Fuck You Mr. Cronenberg for not showing up to your own film at this years Off-Gala screening. That's two films in a row (Spider) you were a no show, and this is the town which has supported you since day 1. Not Classy. I loved your Film though. **End Rant**

A new Cronenberg film is always an event. The Canadian Auteur delivers every single time and A History of Violence continues his stunning string of successes. With this film he continues to explore the darker regions of the human psyche, but without the technology melding of the flesh (Crash, eXistenZ, The Fly). Gone is the gloomy and foreboding atmosphere which typify his work. In fact, this is the sunniest Cronenberg film to date, set in charming small town middle-america complete with diners, lemon pie, baseball and rich fall colours.

I suspect that subsequent viewings of A History of Violence will reveal more layers to the subtext, but one of the charms of watching it the first time is that you never, ever know where it is going to go.

It begins in pure genre territory, in fact, the beginning is not unlike the opening of From Dusk Till Dawn of all films, following two tough-guys in a murder fuelled road trip. Quickly shifting gears, we meet the Stall family, hard working restaurateur dad (Viggo Mortensen), smart and confident lawyer mom (a sublime Maria Bello), and their two school-aged children. The family gets along quite well, with the only visible sign of trouble being with Jack being bullied at school. He has been handling the bullies locker-room intimidation with a self deprecating wit not often used in these types of teenage situations, but the situation is simmering to a boil. Back to the murdering thugs, as they arrive at the quaint little town and into Tom’s Diner. A hold-up is followed by gunplay and an incredible act of heroism on Tom’s part. This particular scene brings Cronenberg’s direction into sharp focus with its shocking, graphic and bloody display. Tom becomes a bit of a CNN celebrity as he gets his proverbial 15 minutes of fame. He is demure and shy, fitting with his small town lifestyle. However, shifting gears again, the TV exposure eventually attracts another comic-book-styled unsavoury into town (a one-eyed Ed Harris, in fine form) who claims to have a past with Tom. Meanwhile, confused by dad’s violent heroics, Jack unleashes his inner demons onto the school bully squad.

The path of the film could go a number of ways at this point. Does he play it like Egoyan in The Sweet Hereafter, a town dealing with violent tragedy? Nope. Does he play it like Oliver Stones satire of the media and violence a la Natural Born Killers? Wrong again. Instead Cronenberg plays it like an archetypical Western in a contemporary setting and a character driven one to boot. Plus, he manages to heighten the genre aspects and also the dramatic aspects with no loss to either approach. In other words he is able to have his cake and eat it too.
Take the complexity of both the leads. In no small part due to superb performances from Viggo Mortenson (No Aragorn or Hidalgo in sight here) Maria Bello and young Ashton Holms. But through two sex scenes alone, he manages to put where the film stands at that point completely in context. Both scenes are very, very steamy (and crammed with subtext) and it was a masterful stroke to get both of them by the MPAA watchdogs. That tidbit alone adds a hint of meta to the proceedings further mystifying the bizarre dichotomy that is sex and violence in modern-day America.

Demons lurk just beneath the surface of a thin veneer of community. But the scary thing is the fact that here it is so casually accepted. The end scene is quietly haunting and burns with a searing intelligence on the state of the union. A History of Violence opens wide September 30th, and it may just find the massive audience it is going after. It is already a classic entry into the Cronenberg canon.

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