Reviews and notes
2005 Cannes, Toronto
A History of Violence
is a psychological thriller and, in its own idiosyncratic way, a rumination on character. There's not a wasted moment. Yet the pace is measured. Every character gets his due, every environment feels lived in, and every bit of story information comes grounded in detail about character and relationships. Cronenberg presses the movie forward, which in this case is not synonymous with simply advancing the story. Cronenberg is also advancing not an idea so much as an impression of violence as something hovering over virtually all human interaction, like the air people breathe. It's not always there, but it always might be there. It can make itself known at any moment... Cronenberg builds the suspense, the sense of everything converging and closing in. Parallels are drawn between Tom's experiences and that of his son, who is contending with bullies in school. The idea is that there's no relief and no shelter, anywhere, which is something Tom seems to understand intuitively. It's what makes him interesting and what makes the movie more than just a routine thriller. He knows violence from the inside out.
- Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle, 23 September 2005.
With his latest, the 62-year-old David Cronenberg shows what can happen when you give someone as brilliantly disturbed as himself enough money to actually do something major - although I have long suspected that, whatever the cost of his movies, it can only be a fraction of his therapy bills. Even a glance at his permanent record, replete with elaborate penetration fantasies (eXistenZ
) and extreme representations of bodily disintegration (Crash
, The Fly
), would give the moneymen pause. Any reasonable person might fear that playing with the biggest budget of his 40-year career would egg the director on to all manner of creative excesses and psychological indulgences. No one has ever accused Cronenberg of restraint.
How surprising, then, that A History Of Violence
should emerge as his most formal and tightly controlled work to date. Perhaps it's because he's working from the cells of a graphic novel (John Wagner, Vince Locke) and, for the first time, has neither written his own story, nor had a hand in the adaptation (Josh Olson did the honors). This has left the director free to focus exclusively on what he does best: superbly coherent and inventive visuals. The result is a sealed, virtually airless hyper-reality where even the outdoor scenes feel as encased as the images in a snow globe. Classically structured and shot, the movie proceeds almost like a play, every move the actors make intensely deliberate. I can't recall ever seeing a Cronenberg film through such a placid, dispassionate lens.
This has the effect of making the violence, when it happens, all the more startling, none more so than the brutality of the film's opening. Tracking steadily along the wall of a seedy motel, the camera encounters a pair of hard cases (Stephen McHattie, Greg Bryk) preparing to check out. Minutes later, having settled their bill in a bloodily unorthodox way, they ride off in a shiny convertible. When they show up in sleepy Millbrook, Indiana (played by Millbrook, Ontario), and attempt to rob a diner, owned by Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen), Tom's impulsive act of self-defense will turn his life (and the movie) inside out. The scene is shockingly transformative and thrilling, our enjoyment of it the first clue to Cronenberg's subversive intentions.
As its title suggests, A History Of Violence
is ambitious and self-possessed, its point of view coolly neutral. To all appearances, Tom is a steadfast family man with an adoring, sexy wife named Edie (Maria Bello), a teenage son named Jack (Ashton Holmes) and a blonde tyke, Sarah (Heidi Hayes). His town is filled with backslapping friends, everyone eats at his diner and the Sheriff (Peter MacNeill) drops by now and then to say howdy. It's the America of Rockwell and Capra, and Cronenberg takes time to show us the demonstrativeness of the Stall family - no repressed emotions here - and Tom and Edie's popularity in the community. Then, having hypnotized us with this ultra-idealised vision, Cronenberg proceeds to blow it to bits.
A History Of Violence
is an unflinching indictment of the savagery at the heart of the American dream. Brutal and funny and uninterested in subtlety, the film lets no one off the hook. In every corner of American life, Cronenberg sees violence: in the high school, where Jack is mercilessly bullied; in the mall, where Edie is threatened by a menacing, mutilated stranger (Ed Harris) who has earlier accosted Tom at the diner; in the media, whose rabid reporters swarm in the Stalls' front yard. And Cronenberg has always been keyed to the sexiness of force: book-ending the mutation of the Stalls' marriage with two graphic and convincing sex scenes - the first playful and tender, the second rough and desperate - the director shows us a couple transformed by lies and illusion.
All exquisite surfaces and twanging tension, the film works because every one of the main performers knows exactly what Cronenberb wants. Freed at last from the dead weight of Aragorn, Mortensen reminds us why Diane Lane buckled at the knees for his Blouse Man in A Walk On The Moon
. And Bello, with her vaguely haggard beauty, is magnificently touching as a woman suddenly sharing her life with a stranger. Even young Holmes, in his first feature, impressively conveys one of the director's main themes: that a violent temperament can be passed from generation to generation, like a strand of DNA.
With its churning emotions and picturesque bloodletting, A History of Violence
is an adult movie in the most literal sense. Always a master storyteller, Cronenberg supplies catharsis and an uneasy resolution (the man doesn't have a postmodern bone in his body). When it's over, we feel both elated and guilty: elated by the craft of a filmmaker still honoring his decades-old commitment to "show the unshowable, speak the unspeakable;" and guilty because Cronenberg has implicated us in his nightmare. The devil in him is never happier than when accusing his audience of being part of the problem.
- Eye For Film, 13 Oct 2005.
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