Thursday, October 11, 2007
A History of Violence (2005)
Rewatching this prior to seeing Eastern Promises (a review of which will be up shortly) I was surprised to find myself a little let down by it in places. Don't get me wrong - I'm a huge Cronenberg fan and this is a very good movie. But it's more flawed than I realized back in 2005. (Spoilers abound from this point on.)
The primary flaw for me, this time around, is the third-act jaunt the movie takes out of its small-town Indiana milieu to Philadelphia, where the secretive former gangster Joey Cusack (Viggo Mortensen) returns home to meet with his brother Richie (William Hurt) after years in hiding for a settling of accounts. It feels like a tangent, a digression - the movie's most interesting aspect is the dynamic between Mortensen's split-personality family man and his wife Edie (Maria Bello) culminating in the amazing sex scene they have after his secret has been revealed. It feels like a mistake to suddenly abandon the movie's best plot line and introduce a whole new antagonist. I'm sure Robert McKee would not approve.
All that said, this movie is still a tricky little gem. For much of its first half, the movie has a decidedly strange tone, more Capra than Cronenberg, a small town that is (literally) too good to be true. You don't usually see a lot of Brechtian devices in action movies, and I can't imagine New Line or Benderspink were happy, if they had any notion of what Cronenberg was up to. It would have been easy for a different director to make a simple gangster/revenge movie out of this material, and it would have probably been a bigger hit.
Instead, Cronenberg has co-opted the template of a standard action movie in order to question and criticize such films. It's a tricky thing to do, but Cronenberg is about a hundred times more successful at provoking inquiry into the nature of cinematic violence and revenge than Neil Jordan and Jodie Foster were in The Brave One. Part of the reason for Cronenberg's success is that he isn't out to make a moralistic point - his films are never argumentative, trying to illustrate a point like 'violence is bad' or anything so simple as that. Cronenberg has always been more interested in documenting and encapsulating images and emotions dryly, free from commentary, and letting us make our own judgments, clinically. People were outraged by the perverse sex scenes in Crash or the deranged violence of Rabid or The Brood precisely because Cronenberg refused to frame them in conventional ways - Crash is practically a documentary about addictive and obsessive behaviors, but people misunderstood observation for approval. So here we have a movie that's less interested in arousing the audience's sympathies in a story of crime and punishment and more interested in simply observing a group of characters as they try to navigate the tricky waters of the movie's narrative. The film's final scene, in which it's suggested that Tom Stall's family is basically going to put aside their newfound knowledge about Tom's identity and pretend like nothing ever happened, is simultaneously one of the most heart-warming and chilling family scenes in recent years.
So the movie isn't really as disappointing as I was thinking when I started this.