Film

VIOLENCE HITS HOME

Cronenberg scores with a taut thriller that subverts a classic American genre

BRIAN D. JOHNSON October 17 2005
Film

VIOLENCE HITS HOME

Cronenberg scores with a taut thriller that subverts a classic American genre

BRIAN D. JOHNSON October 17 2005

VIOLENCE HITS HOME

Cronenberg scores with a taut thriller that subverts a classic American genre

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

Film

THE TITLE WORKS on multiple levels. David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence is the tale of Tom Stall, who runs a diner in a Norman Rockwell vision of small-town America. As portrayed by Viggo Mortensen, he appears to be a mild-mannered family man so quiet and unassuming he could be Canadian. But when a couple of murderous psychopaths step into his diner and give him a hard time, he dispatches them with a lightning

brutality that makes you start to wonder if he has... a history of violence. But the title of this taut, unnerving thriller could also refer to America itself, as a country that reveals its dark side when provoked by an outside menace. Like Denys Arcand’s The Decline of the American Empire, it carries a ring of intellectual import. Last month, at a film festival party celebrating the movie’s Toronto premiere, I found myself locked in a conversation with a rather manic William Hurt, one of its stars. Bemoaning America’s political and moral climate, he said he was afraid the title wouldn’t play in the U.S. “It’s Latin-ated,” he said. “It’s une histoire de violence, a story of violence.” This was a bit abstruse. What’s not to get? “You get it because you’re Canadian. In America, they won’t get it.”

Well, it seems they are getting it. Buoyed by rhapsodic reviews, A History of Violence has given the Canadian director his first solid box-office hit since The Fly (1986). Opening on 1,340 screens in its first weekend of wide release in North America, the movie had grossed almost US$9 million. And while it didn’t lead the pack, its average gross per screen was much higher than those of its blockbuster competitors, Flightplan and Serenity, which both had far broader distribution. With a US$32-million budget, financed entirely by Time Warner’s New Line Cinema, A History ofViolence is a small movie by Hollywood standards, yet the most costly of Cronenberg’s career. Although it’s a U.S. production, with American stars, “if we’re talking creative categories,” says Cronenberg, “it’s a true Canada-U.S. co-production.” It was shot in Ontario with a local crew. And it subverts a classic American genre with a distinctly Canadian sensibility.

If violence is the primal theme of American cinema—ricocheting through Coppola, Scorsese, Eastwood—A History of Violence may well be the movie of the year, and a bold Oscar candidate. Cronenberg is famous for dramatizing horrors of the flesh in movies such as Naked Lunch, Dead Ringers and Crash. But now it’s as if this master outlaw

from film’s wild frontier has shown up on Main Street, swung open the saloon doors, and taken a place at the bar alongside Francis, Marty and Clint.

Based on a graphic novel, A History of Violence works as a thriller, a gangster film and a contemporary Western. But in a country at war, it also plays with the blood lust of an audience eager to cheer on forces of righteous retribution. “The violence at first seems completely justifiable,” says Cronenberg, “because the bad guys are established as really bad guys. So the audience feels, vicariously, very heroic in dispatching them. They’re complicit in the violence. They applaud it. Then I always add a couple of shots of the aftermath to cut the applause short, or at least contaminate it—to say, even if the violence is justified, it still does horrific things to the human body.”

But unlike the orgiastic carnage in so much Hollywood product—this week it’s the savagely titillating Domino, the “almost true” story of a model turned bounty hunter— the brutality in Cronenberg’s film is ruthlessly spare and businesslike. And in between the explosive bursts of action, the actors are given a lot of emotional room to move. Although Cronenberg is famous for shocking us with the grotesque, A History of Violence proves something that those who’ve worked with him have always insisted on: he’s an actor’s director.

As old-fashioned mobsters from Philly, a scar-faced Ed Harris and a loopy, hilarious William Hurt weigh in like long-lost, demented cousins of Tony Soprano. As

the story’s reluctant hero, Mortensen pays off the promise he showed in The Lord of the Rings with a submerged, scary intensity. And as Edie, a wife and mother shocked by her mate’s newfound prowess at killing, Maria Bello negotiates the knife-edge between repulsion and desire. The movie, which could be subtitled Scenes from a Marriage, is a story of trust framed by two carnal interludes between husband and wife. The first is sweet and tender. The second is a bruising confrontation on a staircase, an angry struggle that dissolves into lovemaking.

IT’S AS IF a master outlaw has come to town, swung open the saloon doors, and joined Francis, Marty and Clint at the bar

As for the film’s broader implications, Cronenberg agrees the film “does have political undertones, or overtones, although it’s not overtly political. Those are things that Viggo and I discussed a lot when I was trying to convince him to do the movie. You have a man who’s defending his family and his home against bad guys with guns. It raises the question of retribution. Is anything justified when you’re attacked? It’s also hard not to notice that George Bush uses American Western movies as a model for his foreign policy—Osama bin Laden wanted dead or alive.”

But when it’s suggested that Bush might enjoy the film, the director doesn’t argue, “ft depends how superficially you approach it, and I’m sure he could approach it very superficially. The American Western as a genre is very conservative, and usually involves very Christian themes of redemption. This movie subverts a lot of that. You also wonder what does it take to support that perfect little town? What outside of that town, and outside of that country, has to happen in order for it to exist?”

Those nuances might be lost on some viewers. At a film festival party, NDP Leader Jack Layton told me he was appalled by how the audience applauded the film’s violent retribution, “ft made me angry,” he said. “This is the world of George Bush.” Even though he appears to be approaching movie violence from a moral high ground, Cronenberg is loath to condemn more mindless screen bloodshed as a bad influence. “That would be hypocritical,” he says. “Those charges have been levelled against me in the past. Humans are pretty slippery and strange. I think people recognize the fantasy element of most of the violence they see onscreen. How many times have I seen people killed on the screen. Maybe a hundred thousand. But I’ve never actually wanted to witness a violent act. And the one or two times that I have, nothing I saw onscreen prepared me for it. I’m talking about two drunks beating each other up in a park in Toronto, ft was so horrifying I got weak in the knees.” That’s hard to believe from a man who’s built a career on making us squeamish. Cronenberg has always treated mutilation, and mutation, of the flesh as metaphor. His real goal is to make us feel an exotic discomfort with our own mortality. What’s most disturbing about A History of Violence are not its flashes of heroic retribution, but the moments of intimate terror as a woman looks into her husband’s eyes and sees a stranger.