‘History’ unleashes themes of violence
So far, the best and most interesting movies of 2005 have been among the most violent.
The hostile comic book fantasy "Sin City," the explosive racial parable "Crash," the Nazi biopic "Downfall" and the gunrunning tell-all "Lord of War" all accentuate on-screen violence in healthy doses.
Even the absurdist martial arts romp "Kung Fu Hustle" is pretty much one nonstop fight scene.
Now comes "A History of Violence," a film in which the very title calls attention to this bloody, barbarous aspect.
David Cronenberg's new drama delves into how one brutal act begets another. It's the director's most fully realized work and a masterstroke of violent cinema.
Viggo Mortensen portrays Tom Stall, a model citizen of tiny Millbrook, Ind. He enjoys a quiet life with his saucy wife, Edie (Maria Bello), high school-age son Jack (Ashton Holmes) and young daughter Sarah (Heidi Hayes).
He makes his livelihood running Stall's Diner, a venue frequented by locals who appreciate the strong coffee and meringue pie.
When two thrill-killers slither through town, they decide to target the diner as Tom and his staff are closing up. Sensing the situation is not going to end well, Tom dispatches the men during a particularly ugly exchange.
Although he simply want to move on with his life, he becomes a local hero when the press plasters his face all over the 6 and 10 p.m. newscasts.
But the media attention carries added repercussions. A scar-faced city slicker (Ed Harris) and his thugs show up at the diner, claiming to know Tom from years ago.
"We should leave before he goes all Dirty Harry on us," Harris' character quips.
Here, the movie could have simply turned into a riff on "Cape Fear," with the star trying to protect his family from the escalating intimidation of a powerful outsider. Cronenberg instead shifts the picture in more unconventional directions that explore the implications of what happens when one tries to expunge a history of violence.
Toronto native Cronenberg has been making projects that fall into the "cult" category for more than 30 years. Early horror flicks such as "Rabid" and "The Brood" detailed his fascination with the human body turning against itself. While later efforts such as "Videodrome" and "eXistenZ" explored how flesh and technology were uncomfortably beginning to merge in modern society.
(He's also well-known in Lawrence for adapting William S. Burroughs' darn-near unadaptable "Naked Lunch" for the big screen.)
In certain respects, "A History of Violence" is Cronenberg's most mainstream film -- and yet it's far "weirder" than anything one is likely to find at the art house.
It's not so much the subject matter (penned by graphic novelists John Wagner and Vince Locke), but Cronenberg's detached, deliberate approach that gives this movie an otherworldly quality.
Look no further than the intro in which the murdering tag-team check out of their shoddy motel to witness how offbeat Cronenberg's work comes across. The tempo is slower. The camera angle is unnerving. The dialogue ping-pongs between the men in an unnatural fashion.
It's absolutely riveting.
This style sometimes works to Cronenberg's disadvantage as well.
Scenes where the mousy-but-witty Jack Stall becomes pressured by a high school bully never quite seem grounded in reality. They don't necessarily disrupt the flow of the story, but they're almost more metaphorical than tangible.
Apart from the pervasive violence, the movie features one other element to keep the MPAA on pins and needles: sex.
An early encounter when Tom and Edie have the house to themselves allows them to savor some fantasy play courtesy of a cheerleading outlet because, "We never got to be teenagers together." It's both charmingly quirky and explicit.
But later in the film, when the couple have their next tryst on an uncarpeted set of stairs, the entire nature of their relationship has changed. Their love-making is no longer playful but violent.
There's that word again.
For a story that centers on such a seemingly isolated incident within a small family and community, the movie generates enough moral subtext and disturbing implications to earn the right to a title as lofty as "A History of Violence."
In terms of Cronenberg's career, hopefully "History" is doomed to repeat itself.