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.

8 comments:

cjKennedy said...

I'm a little afraid to rewatch this one. I really liked it at the time, but I keep hearing people tearing it down lately. Matt Zoller-Seitz for one.

Maybe I should just sack up and do it. Naysayers be damned.

frankbooth said...

I went the other way with it. That is, I was dissappointed when I first saw it, and have since come to appreciate it much more.

(I just wrote five or six hundred words detailing why, previewed my post and blanched when I saw how many inches of screen it took up, so I'll leave it at that and spare all of you.)

Jeff McMahon said...

Feel free, the whole point of blogging is to share ideas.

Matt Zoller Seitz is interesting, I used to ignore him back when he was the quiet wallflower in the same room as Armond White. Nowadays since White seems to have fallen into a rut I appreciate Seitz a lot more. When he's right he's very good, but for some reason when I don't agree with him I find him utterly confusing. His enjoyment of Superman Returns and Miami Vice left me completely mystified as to what he saw in those movies.

Pat Evans said...

The biggest problem with this pretty terrific film is William Hurt who seems to have wandered in from a totally different movie.

Jeff McMahon said...

Well, I think William Hurt is at least in the same movie as Ed Harris. But Hurt sticks out more because he's a whole new character introduced in the third act, and because we don't really need him to be in the movie, as far as I can see.

Bo said...

You can make the case that hurt is the bad guy thru the whole film. He's just never seen until the last 10 min.

frankbooth said...

You asked for it:

I've been a DC fan since seeing Scanners during its first run (The Howling was playing on one of the other screens, and I saw both movies more than once. Yes, those were the days...the golden age of pulsing air-bladders, and my back didn't hurt so much then, either. And I was six inches taller, and sang opera beautifully.)

Add the critical pre-release hype surrounding the film, and I expected to be completely
knocked out. I already knew most of the story, including William Hurt's role, which didn't help, and is one of the reasons I've been trying lately to avoid reviews and even trailers in advance.

The forumla of

A) unarmed Viggo comes up against foes who outnumber
him

B) they underestimate him

C) he kicks their asses

struck me as a predictable and was a major letdown, particularly at the end when he's facing opponents who know full well what he's capable of. I also didn't buy for a second that the press and Feds weren't all over his ass after the incident on the lawn. They just wrote it off as justifiable homicide and everyone forgot about it? "That rascal Tom down the road, he's always a-killin' somebody or t'other!"

I was hoping for a more complicated dilemma from Satan-figure Ritchie. What if he told Joey they'd be
even-Steven and he'd let him go back to his little life as Tom if he just did one...last...thing? What if that thing involved hurting someone who didn't deserve it? Instead, Joey just wipes everybody out, Bourne-style...again.

I did enjoy the performances and, on a much baser level, the groovy fight scenes and smashed-in noses.
But overall, the themes and metaphors seemed trite (violence is hereditary, we do bad things to protect the homestead, America was founded on brutality.)


But I knew I had to give it another chance. I've always liked Cronenberg's movies better after repeat viewings, and when I saw the disc for sale cheap, I had to buy it. Like you, I watched it to prep for Eastern Promises (which I liked immediately, despite being
initially shocked by the abrupt ending) and it agreed with me much more this time. Sometimes I appreciate movies more the second time around because I'm able to
enjoy the film I'm seeing rather than the one I expected to see. (Sometimes the one I had in my head
is better, though this is more often the case with lesser directors.) It's almost as if I can't absorb it the first time and need to let it sink in.

This time I was able to appreciate the subtly stylized world of the film, and wasn't bothered by plausibility issues any more than I would be in something like
Mulholland Drive. It's not reality, it's Dave-o-vision. The nuances of Mortensen's performance were more apparent. The shot of him sitting in the diner (why he's all alone in the middle of the day I still don't know; maybe it's between lunch and dinner?)just before his panicked run home, when we first see what we'll later recognize to be Joey's face...great work.

The sex scenes are splendid, of course, particularly the second one. Anyone who says it's rape just doesn't get power dynamics within relationships, and probably
sticks to vanilla ice cream. Those who called these sequences gratuitous also missed the point. Cronenberg uses sex to illuminate the changes going on in the characters, and why shouldn't he? Why should a crucial part of life be off-limits?

So basically, I can still objectively see what I didn't
like about the movie, and am not sure I could argue against anyone who feels the way I did -- but I don't care. This movie transcends those concerns. It creates a space I like being in.

I think that expectations for DC are so high that everyone expected a complete deconstruction of the action-thriller rather than merely a very good example of such. In some ways, he's improved greatly as a director in that his films no longer feature mouthpiece characters who articulate their themes. In cliche, screenwriting 101 parlance, he's showing and not telling.

It's also possible I was swayed by the commentary, and allowed Cronenberg to talk me into realizing how good his movie was. Does this ever happen? A topic for another time, perhaps.

Jeff McMahon said...

Bo: He is not the bad guy in the whole film. He is not referred to or mentioned until he calls Viggo on the phone which launches the third act, and if he is mentioned, it's only obliquely, with no importance.

Frank: I see what you mean, and the obvious references to tribal violence were one of the other aspects that were annoying to me on the second viewing, which I had glossed over in my first viewing. It really is the climactic scene that bugs me the most because there's no real drama to it. Richie tries to kill him, he kills Richie and all of his guys. In dramatic terms, it's just a repeat of the scene on the lawn where he killed Ed Harris and his guys.