A History of Violence: David Cronenberg Shoots To Kill

Source: Cinema Scope


The question of violence and its representation in movies is a kind of ideological parade float, so big that it obscures everything else in sight. What's interesting is that even the most elevated and morally engaged responses to the question, like Rivette's famous condemnation of Pontecorvo's innocuous pan across the electrified fence in Kapo (1959), amount to all-or-nothing propositions. One wrong move, and your film has been removed from serious consideration on moral grounds. Examinations of what can and cannot be represented in the cinema are eternally relevant, but they almost always lead those asking down a blind alley. Not to mention a stunted form of critical thinking. When I was young, the complaint that a film or filmmaker had 'glorified violence' was often heard, as was the similar, if not identical, complaint that the violence in a given film was 'violence for violence's sake' (a mouthful, thus not heard quite as often). Similarly, one became used to such condemnations as 'psychological,' 'sentimental,' 'sexist,' 'racist,' 'manipulative,' or that old chestnut 'fascist.' Such words were, and occasionally still are, carelessly thrown into the stew and just as carelessly ingested, as a kind of low calorie substitute for actual thought. Cinema studies student, born again Christians and aspiring politicians employed them with equal abandon.

I don't mean to imply that racism or sexism or even fascism have never existed in the cinema, or that filmmakers have never exploited the emotions of their customers or the potential of their subjects. What I'm getting at is the way that moviegoers fall so easily into the role of moral watchdogs, no matter what their political affiliation. There are the Michael Medveds of this world, and there are the Jean-Marie Straubs. And if Straub gets the benefit of the doubt because (a) he's a great and (b) he doesn't have a silly moustache, I think he's just as tone-deaf to the intricacies of moviewatching, and thus moviemaking - when the movie is made by someone other than himself and his wife, that is. The reactionary European communist and the reactionary North American conservative share the same core belief: that the road to perdition is paved with morally unaccountable movies, meaning movies that offer an imperfect, unfinished or skewed (consciously or not) vision of the world.

Let us now say goodbye to Mr. Medved and M. Straub (and to Armond White, in whose criticism these two extremes are improbably united), and have a chat with M. Godard. Some years ago, perhaps ten, Godard did a television broadcast in which he addressed the topic of filming war. He offered us newsreel footage, and, in contrast, sequences from Full Metal Jacket (1987) - war as filmed by a great director. Anyone familiar with Godard end his recent preoccupations will correctly guess that Kubrick came out on the losing end. It's been years since I've seen the program, and I don't recall the particulars of Godard's argument as clearly as I'd like to. If I remember correctly, it all boils down to this assertion: that the proximity that Kubrick offers us with his slow motion and squibs and reconstruction of Hue in a deserted London gasworks, can only be a false proximity. From there a hop, skip, and a jump to Deleuze's false consciousness. The idea is that the creation and placement of every image, and the corresponding act of receiving of those images, is a moment of truth. Ideally, every image must exist at a proper moral distance from its viewer, without promising a form of communion that can never be. Noble? Perhaps. Not to mention untenable.

And now on to Cronenberg. Whose new film, A History of Violence, offers communion and distanced reflection at the same time. It is indeed 'a movie that could drive you crazy,' as Jim Hoberman put it in his Voice appreciation - 'you' being Straub, Medved, Godard, my mother, whoever. It looks and even behaves like a fairly satisfying revenge melodrama, featuring that old western standard, the retired gunslinger who breaks his promise to himself and avenges himself against past demons who have returned to plague him and his loved ones. It also features two quick, remarkable special effects shots that wouldn't be out of place in, say, Van Helsing (2004) not to mention an early Cronenberg movie: anatomically detailed close-ups of two faces, one half-blown off, the other smashed in so far that it resembles a Francis Bacon painting. If someone were to approach me in outrage and inform me that Cronenberg had 'glorified' violence, I'm not so sure that I could find reasonable grounds on which to disagree. Come to think of it, I'm not so sure that the film even 'condemns' or 'critiques' violence. Most damningly of all, it not only refuses to deny the satisfaction of violence, but it actually makes such satisfaction a focal point. It's as if Cronenberg were saying, 'See how much this movie looks like other movies you know, and how much it doesn't, and see where the difference leads.'

Cronenberg is not showing us an excess of violence in order to make us see its essential ridiculousness (De Palma's Scarface, 1983), or rubbing our noses in its spectacle as a proof of how desensitized we've become (Irréversible, 2002; Funny Games, 1997). These all seem to me to be losing or at best ineffectual strategies, variations of that old standby, shock value - always heavily dependent on the surrounding context, of which the shock element quickly becomes a constituent part. Cronenberg is actually telling us, quite reasonably, that violence is an all-too-human response, and that we would do better to understand it as such rather than waste our time condemning it or denying its satisfactions. Only Eastwood has approached the question of violence so seriously, but never with such clarity. Watching A History of Violence was, for me at least, like stepping out into the sunshine after a month of rain, and seeing the world from a fresh perspective.

I was surprised when I realized that many of my friends in Cannes had been underwhelmed by the movie. On second viewing A History of Violence seemed that much greater, but I began to understand the divergent reactions. If one dismantles Cronenberg's construction, almost an automatic operation in film criticism, it does indeed look suspect: the heavy dose of Americana in the opening section; the high-school bully who drives the hero's intelligent, sensitive son to strike back; the wife who takes her husband out for the night so that they can ' be teenagers together'; the comedy around the film's violence; the hero returning to hearth and home.

Let's look at these components one by one. The Americana is indeed thick in the film's opening half-hour. There are crane shots of sprawling vistas and vast corn fields straight out of Delmer Daves at his crane-happiest; placid exchanges and general bonhomie among the contented townfolk; the standard iconographical rundown familiar from countless films and TV shows, in both its original version and its ironic mirror-image - the local diner (run by Viggo Mortensen's hero, Tom Stall, a.k.a. Crazy Joey Cusak), the high school, the baseball field, the sprawling backyard garlanded by brilliantly coloured autumn leaves, the family at the dinner table, and so on. Some people I talked to found this objectionable on its own, or perhaps a little tired after Twin Peaks, American Beauty (1999), et al. The assumption being that everyone who does Americana is playing the same game, i.e. laying out the Norman Rockwell surface in order to expose the tensions and savagery lurking below. But is this really what Cronenberg is up to? The aforementioned items are not dwelled on as much as ticked off. I would say that Cronenberg is more concerned with showing us a 'happy family' that happens to live in North America, and filling in the details accordingly.

Then there's the high-school bully, a ubiquitous presence in modern movies from Christine (1983) to A Christmas Story (1983) to Spider-Man (2002). Cronenberg gives us the standard locker room confrontations: Tom/Joey's son Jack (Ashton Holmes) placates and publicly deflates his opponent the first time, then reaches the end of his tether and beats the shit out of him. In between these two contretemps, we also get the bully spotting the wimp outside on a Saturday night as he cruises Main Street in his car, at which point almost runs afoul of two genuinely menacing guys, then drives off in the opposite direction. A hierarchy of violence is established, and the bully is nowhere near the top.

Then there's Maria Bello's blonde-haired, blue-eyed wife Edie, who begins the film in a state of serenity, and who slowly realizes that her husband is not who she thought he was. We know this scenario from countless films - Suspicion (1941). The Stranger (1946), True Lies (1994). The difference lies in the behavioural particulars. The exchanges between Bello and Mortensen are the heart of the movie, and they are remarkably subtle. There are two sex scenes, one before Joey Cusak has been unmasked, the other after the fact. The dutiful wife kidnapping he husband for the night and concocting a naughty-teenager scenario to liven up their marriage is another old standby, and here we have all the usual ingredients: the wife coming on like another woman ('No wives here, Mister'), the husband exclaiming in wonder at his spouse's transformation, his surprise when she goes down on him.

Two elements give this scene its strange undertone. First of all, there is something studied in Mortensen's reactions, as if he'd practised in his head. Every move, every gee-whiz exclamation, is letter perfect, but betrayed by an ever-so-slight lack of spontaneity - a constant in the performance that becomes increasingly relevant as the film goes along. After she goes down on him he reciprocates, and she curls into the 69 position. Apart from the fact that this configuration is rarely used in American movies, there's a kind of instinctive animal quality to her movements that trumps the sense of intimacy: it's as she were burrowing into him. A striking visual detail: Bello straddling her leg around Mortensen's neck, less titillating than arresting.

This move is repeated during the second, far more brutal sexual encounter on the stairs. Edie now realizes that Tom and Joey are one and the same. She avoids him. He grabs her, she pulls away. He slaps her down. She runs up the stairs. He grabs her again, she hits him, and he gets on top of her. We think we're going to se a rape. Instead they do what many couples do when things become too complicated to even formulate, let alone put into words: they have sex. It is neither good sex nor bad sex. It is reciprocally aggressive and reciprocally passionate, and at its peak moment, she curls her leg around him just as she does in the earlier scene. After they've both come, she pushes him away and heads upstairs. What seems like a decisive moment or a turning point is instead a strange kind of déjà vu for the Bello character, a lament for Tom and an acknowledgment of Joey, a rejection and an embrace at the same time. This is after she's confronted the town sheriff and instinctively proclaimed her husband to be Tom Stall, family man, long after she knows better, and before she wanders out of the bedroom in her robe, which opens as she walks toward Tom. Another striking vision, this time casually aggressive, not a come on but a kind of fascinating animal provocation: I'm your wife, you've fucked me over, and now you're going to look at me! What director has ever been better at finding the animal in the human, within the confines of ordinary gestures and behaviour? The final, striking detail, that almost anyone else would have left out: a glimpse of the bruises left on Bello's back from the stairway encounter.

Then there is the comedy. A History of Violence is comic throughout - dryly so. So dry, in fact, that it's possible to experience the film in a number of ways. On the negative end, one might see it as a pale Coen Brothers retread, or as an ever-so-slightly skewed variation of cable-TV juggernauts like Six Feet Under or The Sopranos, in which the assorted elements of a 'typical' household, every sociological element locked firmly in place and on display, is thrown into relief by one discordant element - a paterfamilias who happens to be a Mob kingpin, or a family-run funeral home (the strategy probably originated with Goodfellas [1990]). Or one could just as easily experience A History of Violence as a straight drama. Simply put, it plays funny and it plays serious - your choice. Cronenberg sticks very close to the standard narrative of the retired gunslinger, and he changes very little. But given his own predilections (a biological, as opposed to a sociological, psychological, or metaphysical vision of existence), I suspect that he finds the narrative itself inherently absurd. In other words, the comedy is built in rather than applied from without. The strength of the film is in its lucid understanding of its core dilemma - that of a man who labours under the delusion that he has made himself over into a completely different human being. You could laugh, cry, or do a little of both.

As for the Coen Brothers comparison, the resemblance is only momentary and extremely superficial. Nowhere in the film are we meant to contemplate grotesqueries such, the way we are in any given Coen Brothers enterprise. Every grotesque element -the disfigured face of Ed Harris' Carl Fogarty, the two more severely disfigured faces of Tom/Joey's first victims, the outrageousness of William Hurt in a goatee, as Joey's gangster brother Richie - is directly related to the theme of violence. As self-sufficient spectacle, of deformation, they don't amount to much - Harris' face is a nice make-up job (Crazy Joey has taken out his left eye with barbed wire years before) but it doesn't carry much of a charge on its own. Nor do the two victims' faces, blown-off and pulped, respectively. since they are held on just long enough to leave a mental impression. As for Hurt, his acting (stylized and carefully modulated braggadocio) is less about grotesquerie than animal power-gaming, luring his brother into his lair and getting him settled in before he can do away with him.

Cronenberg is also very far from the sociologically correct comedy of suburban despair. First of all, the details of the household, the high school, the Philadelphia bar, etc. are bare bones, emptied of eye-catching tell-all details, with just enough verisimilitude to give the action credence. Every space becomes a kind of arena, every interaction a contest for dominion. And Tom/Joey is no figure of suburban pathos like Joey Soprano or David Fisher. There is pathos here, but of the most rarefied variety: that of a man who realizes that the irrational, the instinctive, and the altogether unfathomable constitute a far greater portion of his being than the comprehensible, the rational, and the malleable.

As for the violence itself, almost all of it perpetrated by Mortensen's Tom/Joey, there is not a single moment in which Joey appears triumphant, nor is there a moment when he stoically accepts his lot in life - two standards of the retired gunslinger subgenre. Rather, and this is the film's subtlest point, he's embarrassed by his ridiculous efficiency at killing people and by the fact that he's been found out. His instincts go into effect on cue, and then the embarrassment begins. This is the embarrassment of a man who sees his core conception of himself dismantled by circumstance and reassembled in a crazy pattern he can't make sense of. Mortensen's collaboration with Cronenberg is a wonder - it's difficult for me to imagine many actors who would be receptive to such a singular idea, let alone able to put it into such vivid relief.

Tom/Joey's embarrassment is mirrored by Edie's (Bello's is an equally impressive performance) and then Jack's, and it's what gives the ending its power. Is this really the flawed but noble hero warmly welcomed back into the family circle? There are no smiles or hugs, just a rote return to the old domestic routine: the little girl, largely oblivious, sets dad's place at the table, the teenage son gets him a chair. Touching but impressively crazy. Cronenberg ends with a final shot of Tom/Joey, aware that he is being studied by his family, his face as free of atavism as he can muster. It's one of Cronenberg's s greatest question marks. The last line of the underrated eXisTenZ (1999), capping an equally penetrating image of irresolution, wouldn't be out of place here: "Is this still the game?"

A History of Violence presents us with a vision close to Buñuel's, in which sanity and normalcy are not pure states but compromises with madness, and where everyone finds themselves trapped and dizzily looking for the escape hatch, failing to notice that the front door is wide open. As in Buñuel, the internal consistency is as extraordinary as the lack of outward signals of abnormality or aberrance is potentially disconcerting. One might place Cronenberg's film close to Wuthering Heights (1954) or Los Olvidados (1950), which, based on their plot outlines and basic imagery, can be easily dropped into the readymade categories of romantic melodrama and social conscience. But Cronenberg has his own sense of grandeur. Unlike the upper-middle-class phantoms who populate Buñuel's later films, Cronenberg's people actually have a grasp of the absurdity of their own positions, and an awareness of their inability to untangle the mess they're in. Which brings his greatest films, including A History of Violence, close to genuine tragedy.

Thanks to Amy Taubin and Nathan Lee
Last edited: 20 September 2012 11:20:40