Friday, April 13, 2007

A History of Violence (David Cronenberg, 2005)

David Cronenberg is not a director for everyone. His very frank explorations of biology in relation to the human psyche can sicken or confuse viewers and critics alike. Still, his forays into borderline SF and fantasy have garnered a massive cult following – but A History of Violence is something new altogether. It is closest in tone to his 1996 film Crash, which alienated all but his most diehard fans for its heady mix of anything-goes sex and arousing violence. History similarly touches upon the entanglement of sex and violence, as well as the pervasive nature of violence in our pop culture and society.

Viggo Mortensen is Tom Stall, small-town Everyman and Indiana diner owner. He has a lawyer wife, a high school-age son, and a little blonde daughter. Life seems stably idyllic until two robbers show up at his restaurant. Faced with mortal danger, Tom deftly executes both criminals with a pot of coffee and one of the thieves' own guns. He's a local and national hero, but shady figures suddenly show up at Tom's door. They swear that he's Joey, a former criminal who needs to repay old debts. Stall denies these accusations until he is forced to messily dispatch the messengers. It is revealed that Tom used to be a gangland figure, an infamous killer, but that he shunned that life for something more. He must confront his crime boss brother Richie in Philadelphia and face his past. Meanwhile, his son becomes aggressive and brutal toward harassing bullies, and his wife must come to accept what her husband was and, it appears, still is.

This synopsis does not do justice to the weighty philosophical and moral questions posed by the film. First of all, it questions the nature of the violence depicted, as no one escapes its ill effects. Fans of Cronenberg are used to the graphic nature of his productions like Videodrome and The Fly, yet by the end (especially during the climactic scene in Richie's mansion) he seems to be asking us why we enjoy bones shattering and faces bleeding. Only when Tom has been pushed to his breaking point does he shift into "killing mode," and Cronenberg holds back the graphic nature of his actions until the height of his triumph. Can the audience both cheer a character's victory and disdain the outright viciousness of it? This is the problem inherent in much action cinema, where even the merest accountability goes up in flames with the villain's exploded headquarters. William Hurt's brief performance is spot-on as a man living in the midst of violence and destruction. He couldn't care less about henchmen being slaughtered, their twisted bodies lying on the floor. So how different are we, as the audience, from this character in our enjoyment or indifference to bodily harm? The film’s lack of flippancy regarding death is indeed "anti-Tarantino," as one reviewer has called it, and the aftermath of bodily violence is the antithesis of the darkly humorous "Bonnie Situation" in Pulp Fiction.

Tom's children are interesting characters in their own rights. Ashton Holmes gives a strong debut as the son, realizing his potential for violent but righteous behavior after his father's actions. Is violence hereditary, or is it actually ingrained in our culture? The reason for the bully's anger is mostly preposterous, but it hints at our culture's entrenched confidence in Darwinian survival of the fittest at any age. School bullies in film are wholly cliche, so its inclusion is meant to show the violence underlying what we as filmgoers look for and expect. The scene had to end with somebody getting pounded in the face, right? But why can't diplomacy work in that situation? Why does violence always have to enter into it? The unexpected reversal in this scene serves to make these questions known. The daughter is almost too perfect, too oblivious to the swirling events around her. For someone so young, maybe that's the point. She is the innocent one, trusting in the family dynamic and the status quo without understanding that those concepts have been irrevocably damaged by her father's past.

Mario Bello gives a brave performance as Tom's wife Edie, alternately fearful and aroused by her husband's revelations. They seem to be a perfect couple until the diner incident occurs, forever shading Edie's view of Tom. She screams at him in the hospital but covers up for him to the sheriff. The complexities of love are made clear here, as she finds a total stranger walking around claiming that he's her husband. She allows her body to be taken by him, but keeps her emotions to herself. Recognizing that the family is more important than just her needs, she accepts Tom's past and present but does not forgive them. Viggo Mortensen proves more than able to take the demanding central role. His entire demeanor hides a dark past of violence that he can barely live with. Whether he recognizes the extent to which he has irreparably harmed his family is not fully clear, but he has a constant inner struggle throughout the film. He is soft-spoken even when enraged; yet his animal physicality reveals itself often. Cronenberg once again elicits a brilliant male lead performance, continuing in the line of Jeff Goldblum, Christopher Walken, James Woods, and Jeremy Irons.

All in all, this film is perhaps Cronenberg's most morally complex project to date. Gone are the SF trappings that can (to the viewer) cloud the issues within Videodrome or Naked Lunch; Violence is Cronenberg's attempt at realism to make his points more clearly known. Most of his other works can educe a kind of hushed fascination with the human body, or present viscerally intellectual questions regarding taboo subjects, but A History of Violence cleverly makes the viewer question their own motives and beliefs. Each instance of apparent comedy or heroic success brings along with it baggage of a sort that is no laughing matter. The bully makes a mountain out of a molehill in harassing the son, but the son's vicious response blows the high school cliche out of the water. Richie's nonplussed comments make us laugh even while we choke on Tom's unneeded physical cruelty. David Cronenberg has created a thought-provoking essay on violence in our society, in our brains, in our complete makeup. It raises questions that cannot be readily if ever answered but that should be brought up and examined, especially in today's age of pervasive sex and violence.

IMDb page