Monday, March 20, 2006

MOVIES: A History of Violence

Spoilers ahead.

I watched A History of Violence a few days ago, and I have to say I was disappointed. I love David Cronenberg's work, and I was really looking forward to seeing this movie -- it's the film I most regretted not seeing in a theater last year. But this film didn't do much for me. It mostly just sat there.

Here is the one thing the movie does right: the violence. Whenever a violent scene would occur, it would jolt me upright and get me cheering. Hooray, violence! (Which is perhaps not the message the movie is trying to impart to the viewer.) But the only time the film comes alive at all is when somebody is getting killed. (How ironical!!!) I think Viggo Mortensen is just fine as an actor, although his first name bugs me for no good reason, but here, as small-town diner owner Tom Stall, he's just boring. I think Maria Bello (as Tom's wife Edie) is beautiful, and a tremendous actress, and I certainly enjoyed her down-and-dirty sex scenes -- hooray, sex! But again, mostly boring. Ed Harris is always awesome beyond comprehension, and he's the one real bright spot in this film, aside from the violence -- probably because his character, Carl Fogarty, personifies violence. He's the physical reminder of Tom's violent past, the promise of future violence, he dies a violent -- and to me, completely unexpected* -- death (hey, I said spoilers!), and he's the catalyst for violent change in the life of Tom and his family: because of him, Tom's son becomes a killer, too. (Speaking of the son: a little too Adam Brody for his own good.)

The main two problems for me with this film are 1) almost every scene without sex or violence is boring, and 2) there is never any question that Tom is who Fogarty says he is, a man named Joey Cusack with a violent past. If there had been some doubt that Tom was exactly the man Fogarty was looking for, it might have created some suspense, some psychological tension, what have you. But Tom's denials fall utterly flat, and the time the film spends establishing Tom as a quiet, peaceful man, and establishing the quiet, peaceful town in which he lives, also falls flat.

Cronenberg, I guess, is trying to make a statement against violence here, or at least, that's what the DVD extras tell us he's trying to do. But Cronenberg fails here at denying his own cinematic violent past. Blood and gore is what he does best. It's by no means the only thing he does well, but it's what he's known for and what he excels at better than almost any other director in film history. You can see that Cronenberg, and the script, are telling us that violence begets violence, that it causes more damage than is at first apparent, that it can take on a life of its own. But when the only truly interesting moments in the film are those of violence, that conveys the exact opposite message.

All in all, it's not terrible, but it's nowhere near the greatness I was expecting. For Cronenberg's visual flair, for certain performances, mainly Ed Harris and the Oscar-nominated William Hurt as Joey Cusack's brother Richie (which nomination to me is inexplicable: it's an entertainingly bizarre performance -- "I tried to strangle you in your crib; I guess all kids do that" -- but it's so brief, not even ten minutes at the end of the picture), for those jarring, gruesome scenes of violence, I'm glad I saw it. But it's far from Cronenberg's best, and I have no desire to see it again.

*I expected him to die at some point, of course, just not so early on.

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