Friday, August 31, 2012

Director Spotlight #9.18: David Cronenberg's A History of Violence


Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. August’s director is body horror auteur David Cronenberg.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the movie in question.

Grade: 93 (A)

After a series of difficult but rewarding adaptations (Naked Lunch, M. Butterfly, Crash), David Cronenberg seemed to be on the verge of lapsing into self-parody with the ambitious but hopelessly muddled eXistenZ and the fascinating but inane Spider. Along comes A History of Violence, easily the punchiest and pulpiest film of David Cronenberg’s career. Based off a graphic novel, the film takes the structure of a relatively straightforward potboiler thriller and has clear pulp origins. But that punchy quality is part of what gives the film’s moral and existential ambiguity such overwhelming power and makes it the director’s best film since Dead Ringers.

Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen in the first of three collaborations with Cronenberg) has carved out a comfortable living for himself in Millbrook, Indiana. He has a loving and still playful relationship with his wife Edie (Maria Bello) and two children, teenage son Jack (Ashton Holmes) and young daughter Sarah (Heidi Haynes). He owns a diner, and he has become a regular member of the community. One night two thrill-killers attempt to rob Tom’s diner. As they’re about to kill a waitress, Tom kills the two of them with surprising aplomb and becomes a local hero. But the exposure brings unwanted attention: Philadelphia gangster Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris), who believes that Tom is really a man named Joey Cusack, and that he’s the man who took out Fogarty’s eye. Tom denies all involvement, but Fogarty is insistent, and he has a good question: “how come Tom is so good at killing people?”

A History of Violence shows some of Cronenberg’s most assured work behind the camera, starting with the opening shot. There’s an extraordinary deliberate pace to the proceedings as he introduces the two men who will later try to rob Tom’s diner. There’s a fantastic sense of quiet and stillness that outdoes anything Cronenberg did in the aesthetically rich but often impenetrable Spider.  We’re not quite sure who these people are or what their deal is, but there’s something far too calm about the situation and about the static shot that calls us to pay attention. And then Cronenberg follows one of the men into a motel and takes a look inside, where we see the carnage of their last crime: blood everywhere, dead bodies, and one remaining survivor who won’t last much longer.


It’s a formally brilliant sequence, as well as an intelligent opening that’s important to establish a contrast between the dangerous men and the seemingly normal Tom. Millbrook is established as Anywhere, America. It’s a nice town with nice people, all of whom have a certain likable folksiness and to them, Tom and Edie included. They all seem like they’ve never had a traumatic experience in their life and that they’ve got a perfect marriage. So when the two thrill-killers arrive at Tom’s diner, it feels like it could be a drawn-out situation where everything goes to hell. Tom’s assurance at handling the situation and killing the two, then, is shocking and unsettling. We cheer on our likable protagonist, but then we see the results: a man’s face has been blown pretty much clean off. It’s frank and disgusting violence that shows how fragile the body really is (always a strength of Cronenberg’s), and it’s the first scene that makes us question our earlier bloodlust.

Cronenberg does an excellent job of thwarting expectations and keeping the audience guessing with a very patient, slow-burning tension that studies how a normal family might handle overwhelming pressure and the looming threat of violence. Cronenberg also assembles one of the best casts he ever worked with: Maria Bello gives what’s easily the best performance of her career as the put-upon Edie, a woman who goes from supportive of her husband and protective of her family to someone who realizes that the love of her life is perhaps not the man she thought he was. Ed Harris is equally excellent as Fogarty, a mob man who hides his boiling hatred behind a thin veneer of politeness (“it really is terrific coffee!”).

The real revelation is Mortenson, an actor who quietly built up a reputation as an underutilized presence in films like Carlito’s Way, The Indian Runner, and G.I. Jane before his commercial breakthrough in The Lord of the Rings. Mortensen’s performance is fantastic throughout, but one learns to appreciate its complexity and nuance upon repeat viewings. Tom is the perfect everyman. Sure, he’s handsome and athletic and his wife is gorgeous, but he lives such a low-key life that it’s hard to suspect him of anything. Yet try as he might, there is a violent nature in Tom, one that he can’t fully suppress as much as he may try: he is Joey Cusack, a man who killed for both money and pleasure. Tom’s confrontations with the villains show extraordinary restraint and commitment to his front: he tries his best to avoid any and all confrontation, and only when he’s pushed to the point of desperation does he show his true face: that of a violent, cold-blooded killer.

Reality has been a major theme within Cronenberg’s body of work, with many characters disappearing into meticulously constructed fantasies either by their own will (Naked Lunch, M. Butterfly) or by an uncontrollable force (Videodrome, Dead Ringers). A History of Violence shows the illusion of the idealized family unit, forced into will by a man trying to escape a horrific past. Joey has been Tom for so long that it’s second-nature to him, and, to be fair, he really does seem to love his wife and children. But while Tom can play it all as cool as a cucumber, reality starts to shine through: Fogarty isn’t the kind of man who’s going to put himself out in the open without reason…say, getting back at the man who tried to take his eye out. The cracks start to show through, and when Tom snaps into his violent nature in his final confrontation with Fogarty, it’s hard to deny it any longer. He admits it to himself and to Fogarty: “I should have killed you in Philly”. His son saves his life by shooting Fogarty, but as the two embrace, it’s clear that Jack is truly afraid of his father. Edie doesn’t even know how to process it, and as she drags the truth out of Tom, it becomes clear that their marriage is some sort of a strange front for a sociopath.

Loss of control is another major theme of Cronenberg’s. In a sense, it’s a callback to Cronenberg’s masterpiece Dead Ringers, where two sensibilities inhabit the same body (or similar bodies). Once reality comes crashing down, it grows increasingly difficult for Tom to suppress Joey’s base instincts. Two wildly differing sex scenes best highlight this shift in personality, along with their accompanying bits of Howard Shore’s phenomenal score. The first is between a happily married couple: Tom and Edie are as giddy and as horny as a couple of teenagers, so it makes sense that they’d role-play as cheerleader and boyfriend in a sex scene that’s equal parts sweet, funny, tender, and erotic. These are two people whose love for each other hasn’t diminished over the years. Howard Shore’s score is at it’s idealistic best, near John Williams levels.

Contrast that to a scene at the end of the film’s second act: Tom and Edie have lies to a family friend about Tom’s past, and Edie can barely stand to be in the same room as Tom anymore. As he runs for her, she slaps him…and he grabs her throat. The animal is loose, and Joey is in charge. The two have sex on the staircase, but the scene is disturbing on several levels. First, Joey forces himself on Edie- it’s borderline rape. More disturbing still is how she responds: with passion. Shore’s score swells with brooding, near-tragic tones. By the end, Edie’s left with bruises and guilt for having responded to Joey, and it’s clear that Tom’s identity is slipping.

Identity, of course, is yet another central theme throughout Cronenberg’s filmography. The only way that Tom can repair his identity is to make peace with his past. Act three shows Tom traveling back to Philadelphia to visit his brother Richie, played by William Hurt in a scene-stealing Oscar-nominated performance. At this point, the film turns into a wicked black comedy about two brothers who hate each bitterly. Tom hates Richie because he’s the final link to his past. Richie hates Tom (ahem, Joey) because Joey’s attempted hit on Fogarty cost Richie his prominence and respect within the Philadelphia mob. Richie dryly notes that his brother is the truly sick one (“you took his eye with barbed wire. That’s disgusting”) and that he’s always been a problem (“I tried to strangle you in your crib…mom caught me, whacked the daylights outta me”). The only way Tom/Joey can make things right? Die.

Here, Tom almost completely disappears as Joey drops all pretenses. He’s a man from small town America, but he’s not hiding that he’s a cold-blooded killer who likely knows his final encounter with his brother is going to end in bloodshed. He’s still the violent man who can’t be stopped, much to the annoyance of Richie (to a goon who had a clear shot to kill Joey: “how do you fuck that up?!”). And when it comes down to the final bit, they both realize the weight of the situation. Richie’s final words as he realizes he’s about to die: a darkly funny “Jesus, Joey”. Tom’s answer, “Jesus, Richie”? Much less funny.

For as Tom washes his wounds and the blood from his body, it’s clear that the water can’t cleanse his soul. As he returns home for a family dinner, his family only gradually and reluctantly welcomes him. Sarah welcomes him with a plate, but it’s not clear whether it’s out of love or fear. Jack passes the food, but he can barely make eye-contact with his father, whose face is filled with shame and sadness. Edie finally looks to Tom. Their expressions are inscrutable. Can they return to a beautiful lie, or has the truth destroyed them? 

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