Movie of the Moment: Model Citizens
By Amy Taubin
Image Takashi Seida.
© New Line Productions Inc.
Nothing Is Quite What It Seems in A History of Violence, Cronenberg's Subversive Vision Of Homeland Insecurity
'As we're recognizing, there's a hallucinatory quality to so-called normal life, particularly in the U.S.' - David Cronenberg, interviewed in May 2005
'We thought of the western - and yes, of course, how political do you want to get? The western myth of the homesteader with his gun, defending his family and piece of property against other men with guns. And does that become your foreign policy? All bets are off. The social contract is canceled. You are allowed to do anything in that situation. To that extent, when westerns are mentioned by the President as part of his foreign policy, when Osama Bin Laden is wanted "dead or alive,' you have to seriously think about the "interbleeding' of genre, myth and realpolitik, which, I guess, is not that real.' - David Cronenberg, in a follow-up interview in July 2005
(Major spoilers ahead. If you've read the graphic novel, you know what they are, but anyone else, be forewarned.)
David Cronenberg's A History Of Violence is set in the fictional town of Millbrook, Indiana, population about 3,200. It's a small town like many we've seen before in American movies - clean and friendly, and indeed a sign outside the main street diner that's run by the film's protagonist, Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen), says 'Friendly Service.' The lettering suggests that the sign dates back to the Thirties, and inside the diner, the ice-cream-cone advertisements are of similar vintage. When the townspeople greet one another on the street, they say things like 'see you in church,' and sometimes when they wave, they raise their forearms and make a slow back-and-forth semaphore-like gesture, like the fireman in the opening sequence of Blue Velvet.
But A History of Violence, which after its Cannes 2005 premiere was immediately compared to films by David Lynch and the Coen Brothers, is a very different animal. Unlike the Coen Brothers, Cronenberg is not cynical; he doesn't entertain by making his characters into a grotesque spectacle so that the audience can feel superior to them. (To get an immediate, palpable sense of the difference between Cronenberg and the Coens, compare five minutes of the score - and how it's used - in any Cronenberg film with the same in any Coen Brothers film.) And unlike Lynch's films, in which ordinary people lose themselves in a mysterious, dangerous, aberrant underworld, Cronenberg's films are filled with damaged, fragmented, transgressive outsiders who yearn to be made whole. This yearning is suggested not only in the narrative subtext but also in the expressive elements of the mise-en scène, which, since Dead Ringers (88), have become increasingly 'classical' in their balance and refinement. In that film, the Mantle twins yearn to be united as they were in their mother's womb. In Crash (96), the yearning is for oblivion on impact, an explosive measure necessary to cure an extremity of alienation. In Spider (02), it is to return to the pre-Oedipal bliss of symbiosis with the good mother. And in A History of Violence, it is the yearning for a normal life, an American dream more compelling - and more impossible - than winning the lottery.
Image Takashi Seida.
© New Line Productions Inc.
'Why would they build a three-quarter-scale town that's pretty much like Millbrook in Disney World? It must have something to do with some feeling of innocence. It's like the Garden of Eden, a fantasy of the past when things were better. It's that yearning, that aching for that reality to be true. And as a Canadian, I'm susceptible to it, too.' - David Cronenberg, July 2005
Cronenberg became involved with A History of Violence as a director-for-hire. New Line had already committed to produce an adaptation of John Wagner and Vince Locke's graphic novel. According to Cronenberg, when he received the script by Josh Olson there was no mention of its source, and it wasn't until he and Olson were pretty far along in a rewrite that he found out about the Wagner/Locke original. By then, he says, the script had changed so much that it seemed pointless to go back to the graphic novel. (Oddly enough, Locke, whether consciously or not, had drawn his protagonist so that he resembles Cronenberg as he looked circa Videodrome.) New Line financed the film for $32 million (the largest budget with which Cronenberg has ever worked) and is marketing it as a mainstream adult thriller.
No harm trying, and if the marketing strategy pays off, Cronenberg will have pulled off the rare trifecta: a film that is a mall-pleaser, a subversive contemporary political critique (the most overt of his career), and a serious art-film meditation on the dynamics of identity, society, and their cinematic representation. A History of Violence is spare, elegant, and propulsive; there isn't an extraneous moment, and every action, gesture, and line of dialogue is so layered with implications and meaning, it makes your head spin. (It should replace Chinatown as a screenwriting model.) restrained though it is, the film has moments of emotional impact devoid of sentimentality, and beyond that, in the scenes of violence (five in all) and in one of the two sex scenes, it takes you someplace that feels primal - where, to follow Freud's model, the basic drives of sex and aggression take over. I've seen the film four times, and at each screening I felt the audience change in these scenes, coming together like one mesmerized body.
Cronenberg alludes to familiar genres - specifically the revenge western and it-came-from-within horror - not to share with us his passion for movies (if indeed he has such a passion) but to hold them up as mirrors to the hallucination in which we are all complicit and which we call real life. A History of Violence is the wide-angle version of Spider, which is filtered, in its entirety, through the subjectivity of a madman, whose delusions protect him from the knowledge of the terrible crime he committed as a child. Like Spider, Tom Stall has a history of violence he is desperate to deny, but where poor Spider is isolated in his madness, Tom is able to construct a sufficiently coherent identity - albeit not exactly the identity we would call his own, but then Cronenberg doesn't exactly subscribe to the notion of fixed identity - to pass as an acceptable member of a society that's busily confirming the hallucination of its own goodness and denying the institutional violence that is the American way.
Image Takashi Seida
When Tom is forced to admit to Edie (Maria Bello), his wife of some 15 years, that he is not the kind, gentle Tom Stall but Crazy Joey Cusack, who fled Philadelphia after taking out the eye of a made man and killing some of his boys, she is so dumbfounded by the enormity of his deception that she stammers such non sequiturs as, 'You never lived in Portland?' The line gets a laugh, in part because the situation these two people are in is so horrible as to be absurd, and Portland is the least of it. And if the laughter has a mordant edge. it's because Cronenberg, never more the master of pacing than in this film, leaves just enough space around her words - and indeed around all the dialogue - for us to hear the echoes of other deceptions, self-deceptions, and denials: 'You mean you knew there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq?' 'You mean you knew in advance there would be famine in Niger?' 'You mean those penguins who waddled their way through the sleeper movie hit of the summer of 2005 are the canaries of global warming?' Twenty years from now - if it's not overly optimistic to imagine there will be a twenty years from now - viewers will be able to plug in whatever bamboozlements are uppermost in their minds.
A History of Violence opens outside a creepy motel in the middle of nowhere. Even before it turns horrific, this prelude to the narrative proper is calibrated to make us uneasy. Two men (Stephen McHattie and Greg Bryk), whom we almost immediately recognize from their body language and their dead eyes as psycho killers, are ostensibly checking out of the motel. The scene is shot with the 27mm (wide angle) lens that Cronenberg will use for almost the entire movie, and the slight distortion of the space, combined with the amped-up. abruptly edited sound effects (crickets, a snatch of rockabilly music), the slowness with which the bad guys move, as if they were underwater, and their disconnected, affectless conversation, has a nightmarish tone. After the older of the two has entered and emerged from the motel office, he sends the younger in, and the camera follows him to reveal a splatter of blood on the desk and then two freshly killed corpses on the floor. A terrified little girl enters the room, and as she stands whimpering, the man, moving slow and quiet - like a hunter with a deer in his sights - pulls out his gun and shoots her. The sound of the single gunshot butts up against the sound of a child screaming. It's not the girl in the motel, but another little girl of about the same age, who has awakened from a nightmare. She is Sarah (Heidi Hayes), Tom and Edie's five-year-old daughter. Her parents and her teenage brother Jack (Ashton Holmes) quickly gather on her bed to comfort her and assure her that it was only a dream. But, of course, we know otherwise; the marauders are on their way.
Having established the bad dream, Cronenberg shows us the good: the pretty town, the misty country roads in the soft morning light, the Stall's comfortable house with its braided rugs, wooden decoy birds, 19th-century prints, and well-worn wood furniture - none of it Pottery Barn imitation, but the real thing. Cronenberg's Millbrook is a town that exists as an ahistorical emblem of the American imagination. It's not entirely an anachronism; in fact, its progressive aspects - most notably that Edie is not only a working mom, she's an attorney (and thus, in an unusual gender switch, an embodiment of the law) - seem not at all out of keeping. It is also strikingly without a seamy side - no Lynchian whorehouses or houses of any kind gone to seed. The only menacing note is struck by the high-school bully who has it in for Jack Stall, and we understand what a low-level threat he is when, finding himself eyeball to eyeball with the 'motel killers,' he knows he's outclassed and backs off.
What makes this vision of a civilized, normal society particularly Cronenbergian is its institutional quality - the way, for example, the greens and browns that dominate the color scheme of the Stall home and Tom's diner are not very different from the colors of the hospital where Tom winds up on the two occasions he disposes of the bad guys, or for that matter from the colors of the halfway house seen through the eyes of the schizophrenic in Spider. Like Nietzsche's 'prison-house of language,' Cronenberg's films depict a prison-house of consciousness. Take Tom's last name, which he shamefacedly tells Edie he took because 'it was available.' (In the graphic novel, the character was named McKenna.) Here 'Stall' obviously implies that Tom is stuck between the bad identity he wants to shed and the good identity he's desperately trying to embrace, but the letters themselves - the 't' and the double 'l' - suggest the bars of an institution. In A History of Violence, the 'insanity' of Tom's double life (or to use his metaphor, his belief that he was 'born again' when he met Edie) is part of a societal insanity - the cognitive dissonance involved, for example, in fetishizing the family in order to disavow the power of the corporate state, or in fetishizing traditional small-town America in order to disavow the violence with which the continent was claimed.
Image Takashi Seida.
© New Line Productions Inc.
In casting Mortensen, Bello, and William Hurt (who brings a touch of Olivier in Richard III to the role of Tom's brother, a frustrated mid-level Mafia chief), and Howard Shore's music, which, like all of his scores for Cronenberg, suggests human experience as essentially tragic, are crucial elements. But the film is most distinguished by its use of the wide-angle lens. Cronenberg explained that he prepared for the fight scenes by watching self-defense training films. He was most impressed by the intimacy of the violence - how it involves moving in on your opponent even if he ha a gun. 'I wanted to do that with the lens. If you use a 27mm, it means you're close. You get this intimacy with the person's face, but in the context of the background. Photojournalists these days use a lot of wide-angle because you have to be in the middle of the battle to get that shot. You know the camera was close. I wanted the audience to feel close enough to hit someone in the face. I wanted them to be right there and involved.'
The violence explodes as if out of nowhere, takes on a life of its own, and is over very fast. No extended slo-mo ballets, just real-time continuity cutting and efficient camera placement. And yes, it affects the audience viscerally and kinetically on some primal level. But because Cronenberg uses the 27mm lens throughout the film, the violence is not set apart. The film is as remarkably intimate and harrowing in its depiction of family life as it is in showing the violence that is its ostensible subject. The most powerful image in A History of Violence is of Edie, coming out of the bathroom, as she's probably done 5,000 times in the course of this marriage, with her robe carelessly open to reveal her naked body. But this time, when she sees the husband who has deceived and endangered her and her children, she reacts by tying the robe tight around her. The gesture is both instinctive and pointed, defensive and aggressive. The woman has reclaimed the body on which the marriage has been written, shutting her husband out, maybe forever, maybe not. The shot lasts only five seconds, and is the final stage of a fight that began the night before. Blows were exchanged, and then, perhaps in order to avoid killing each other, Tom and Edie had sex - clumsy, violent sex that had almost nothing to do with desire and left them just as frustrated and angry as they were before. For anyone who has been married, or lived a long time with another person, there's nothing unusual about this kind of sex. But one almost never encounters it in the movies.
One way of looking at A History of Violence is as a depiction of a marriage that begins with a shot of a happy family crowded together in the frame (as Tom, Edie, Jack, and Sarah were when Sarah woke up screaming from the nightmare which then erupted into their waking lives) and ends with the same four people around the dining room table, unable to look at one another, each of them locked away in a separate frame. The husband has confessed that he and consequently his entire family have been living a lie, but the truth has not made them free. In the course of the story, he has killed nine men and involved his son in killing another. And while he killed all of them in self-defence or to defend his family, the efficiency with which he dispatched them is, how can we put it, disturbing. On the dinner table is a meal that could have been an illustration in The Joy of Cooking: meat loaf, potatoes, a yellow vegetable and a green. The meal in itself is as close to social satire as the film gets. But the confusion and loss felt by the characters is heartbreaking. What we have here is cognitive dissonance, and it's the American way.
Last edited: 20 September 2012 11:24:03
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