Google+ Cinema Viewfinder: Cronenberg Blogathon: Notes on A History of Violence (2005)

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Cronenberg Blogathon: Notes on A History of Violence (2005)

by Montgomery Lopez

[Montgomery Lopez concentrates on the science fiction/horror/fantasy slice of the blogosphere at his Monster Scifi Show Blog]

Having known David Cronenberg primarily as a horror genre director, A History of Violence doesn’t exactly appear to be Cronenberg’s cup of tea on the surface. Even the summary from IMDB for this film, “a mild mannered man becomes a local hero through an act of violence, which sets off repercussions that will shake his family to its very core,” doesn’t necessarily sound like Cronenberg material. Even the opening 4-minute one-take shot is not representative of a typical Cronenberg film. But there is evidence of a thematic similarity that resonates throughout his films.

As with many of his films, there’s a constant thread of some type of metamorphosis within the main character like Max Renn (James Woods) in Videodrome, Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) in The Fly, and even Rose (the late Marilyn Chambers) in Rabid. With Videodrome, Renn's body is altered by the disturbing hallucinations he experiences due to watching Videodrome. In The Fly, Brundle is changed by an experiment gone horribly wrong. And in Rabid, Rose is infected after a botched surgery. These are all external forces that change these characters against their will.

In A History of Violence, Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) fits the metamorphosis trend perfectly and goes one step further. His metamorphosis occurs as a result of the external forces represented by the two killers in the opening shot, but there is also something happening to Stall internally. The violence he is able to unleash throughout the film—while necessary to protect his family—not only changes him but changes him in the eyes of his family. Granted, this is not the typical weird mutated Cronenberg freakishness I have come to love and expect, but I believe the true horror comes from the fact that we all have the capacity of violence in one form or another.

Throughout the film, as the violence escalates, we see how each family member is not only affected by it but also altered forever. Tom’s son Jack (Ashton Holmes) has been dealing with a bully by using non-physical means, but there comes a time where enough is enough and Jack does what he feels is right and justified. While we cheer for Jack, Tom smacks his son in the face for the violence he commits as Jack’s action puts the bully in the hospital.

Another example is Tom’s relationship with his wife, Edie (Maria Bello). We see their love for each as being strong and sensual. There is a sexually charged role-playing scene where Edie gets dressed up as a cheerleader, pretending her parents are asleep next door. Their love and intimacy is genuine. But towards the end, Edie has become so repulsed by Tom's secret identity that they get into a fight which leads to a disturbing scene of rough sex skirting comfortably close to rape. Uncomfortably erotic though it is, once the act is done Edie leaves Tom as there is no intimacy left. In each case, after the act is committed by Stall's respective family members their relationship to him is markedly different.

Although I highly enjoyed A History of Violence, there is just one weak spot for me. As the film nears its climax, we meet Richie Cusack as played by William Hurt. Cusack is Tom's older brother (you’ll understand this when see the movie). Though Hurt's performance is noteworthy by Oscar standards, I feel his comedic approach ultimately hurts the film. On the other hand, Ed Harris' performance as enforcer Carl Fogarty is a menacing baddie which radically plays against the type of character he usually plays. The confrontation between Carl and Tom is wonderful to watch as the intensity builds, but gets played out far too short for my taste.

Still, A History of Violence is another example of Cronenberg's ability to bring the best out of his cast, especially the actors who play the Stall family.


The Sci-Fi Fanatic said...

Thanks for the notes. I think, like the Dead Zone, but moreso, it's a far more subtle Croneberg work. It certainly laces itself firmly in the Real World and Cronenberg attacks his interesting themes in a more intriguing, certainly less graphic, environment in comparison to his other films. You simply can't escape.

Adam Zanzie said...

Man, I remember when A History of Violence came out: I was just beginning high school and I wanted to drag my parents out to see it, but after hearing about all the explicit content (diner shooting, staircase rape, mob showdowns) I chickened out. However, when it came out on DVD I IMMEDIATELY went out and bought it. There's nothing quite like watching that movie for the first time--it's bloody brilliant.

Unfortunately, I'm not so sure A History of Violence has aged very well. I still enjoy Cronenberg's direction and the performances by Viggo, Bello, Hurt and Harris; and that scene where Ashton Holmes beats the shit out of those bullies still pumps up my manly testosterone every single time. I tell ya.

But what I haven't been able to keep on admiring is Josh Olson's screenplay. I know that the film is based on a graphic novel and therefore it's not supposed to be realistic, but some of the cliches in this script are painful: the daughter waking up and screaming at a bad dream; the bullies saying pathetic things to the son like "Let's do this, bitch!"; and the (arguably) cheap way of ending the movie with Tom/Joey having to go all the way to his brother's for the big showdown. Even though it may be a necessary sequence, in some respects, in order for Tom to finally bury his closet skeletons for good, part of me also wonders if maybe Cronenberg threw this sequence in there because he needed a big action finale to justify his already-powerful film.

It's sort of a movie like De Palma's The Untouchables where it's definitely entertaining and the power of the story is undeniably there, and yet the commercial elements (even with this being an independent film) constantly feel invasive. Also, it bothered me that the theatrical trailers gave away the film's important secret--therefore, all of us went into the film knowing what was going to be revealed. Regardless, an excellent film, even though I think Eastern Promises is far superior in terms of its execution of melodrama.

Tony Dayoub said...

Adam, it is these "potboiler" films which I usually have a fondness for when judging an auteur's directing acumen. I think it's because the traditional genre trappings they adhere to are easy to isolate, allowing one to separate the auteur's unique characteristics and examine them without distraction.

Specifically in HISTORY, one can see the way Cronenberg applies his take on violence/gore, violence/sex and violence/identity quite clearly. I guess to you it feels dumbed down, but to me it feels "simplified."