New Line // 2005 // 96 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky (Retired) // March 13th, 2006
"The truth is that violence as a way of life is pretty common on Earth right now...I think that violence is an unfortunate but very real and unavoidable part of human existence." -- David Cronenberg
David Cronenberg crafts the best movie of 2005. Want to fight about it?
Stop me if you've heard this joke before. Two guys walk into a diner. They pull out their guns and try to rob the place. The owner asks them to stop. The guy in the black suit tells him to shut up. The owner slams a coffee pot in the guy's face and leaps over the counter. He grabs the guy's gun and shoots the two robbers dead.
Now a hero to his family, the town, and the nation, the diner owner, whose name is Tom (Viggo Mortensen) just wishes he can go back to his life. But then more bad men come to town. They say that Tom isn't really Tom. He is a guy named Joey. Now Tom's wife Edie (Maria Bello) is confused. Who is this man she married? Is he somebody else? Has he always been somebody else? Is Tom even sure himself?
Later, when Tom's son Jack (Ashton Holmes) gets into a fight at school, Tom gets mad at him. He yells, "In this family, we do not solve our problems by hitting people!"
"No," Jack snaps, "we shoot them!"
Some joke, eh?
In his Poetics, Aristotle marks the purgative function of tragedy, that tragedy is draining. The word here is catharsis, and there is some debate over precisely what Aristotle means by it. In Greek, it suggests purity, a restoration of an originary state. Tragedy flushes out "pity and fear" in a "proper purgation" (or so say most translations). For example, consider the recent Paul Haggis film, Crash. The act of violence, the collision, purifies: characters collide and discover deep and meaningful relationships with one another.
Contrast this with the David Cronenberg film, also titled Crash. The act of violence, the collision, produces new and more complex entities. As Vaughan remarks in that film, "The car crash is a fertilizing rather than a destructive event -- a liberation of sexual energy that mediates the sexuality of those who have died with an intensity impossible in any other form." Violence does not purge -- it produces.
To really understand A History of Violence, you need to look at that title. This is not all history; this is a history, a potentiality. But in a way, it does suggest a question about history itself: what is a history of violence? Does violence have a history?
Any history begins with a story. Two gentlemen leave a motel. One wears black, tipping his head up to stretch and perhaps listen to the crickets. The other, in t-shirt and backpack, cigarette dangling from his teeth, straightens a chair. They are tired, resigned to a long trip, ready to check out of their motel room. David Cronenberg's camera watches them passively. We are waiting for something to happen. The calm is frustrating. This is a movie called A History of Violence, and yet it seems to be moving with all the speed of a Kubrick film. (And perhaps this long tracking shot is Cronenberg's tribute to Kubrick, another director who understood the destructive potential of male power.)
The man with the cigarette is thirsty. He wanders into the lobby, bored. He walks past a smear of blood on the counter. He ignores the ruined bodies on the floor. He only looks up when a frightened little girl enters. He shushes her quiet sympathetically. Then he shoots her.
Sarah Stall (Heidi Hayes) awakens. "I saw monsters," she tells her father and brother Jack (Ashton Holmes) after her nightmare. Her father assures her, as fathers usually do, that there are no such things as monsters.
If you have ever seen a David Cronenberg film, you know that there are plenty of monsters, and that those monsters are really inside us. The two villains that menace Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen, The Lord of the Rings) in his diner in Millbrook, Indiana, appear to be monsters, but they are, as we are told repeatedly, just "bad men." The real monstrousness is apparently in Tom's shocking reaction to them. After he brutally slaughters them, sees their bodies dribbling and twitching on the floor, he looks at the gun in his hand as if it is some perverse extension of his own arm that he only just noticed for the first time.
This would be, in any other film, the first moment of Tom's transformation. And in any other film, Tom's journey would move him through a world of violence until the "badness," the chaos, was purged from the world. This would require that Tom begin the story as an innocent. That is indeed our first, deceptive impression of the Stalls. Tom and his wife Edie (Maria Bello, The Cooler) are cute and in love. They joke like teens about making out at the drive-in. But those innocent days are gone: there hasn't been a drive-in around town in decades. Later, Tom's wife says, "We never got to be teenagers together," and she dresses as a cheerleader to seduce her husband. Innocence must be created artificially. When she calls him a "bad boy," it is just a tease. "You are the best man I've ever know," Edie gushes, "There's no luck involved."
But random collisions are part of the fabric of the world, and real relationships are darker than fantasies of teenage love. The cook at Tom's diner tells a funny story about a former girlfriend who dreamt he was "a demented killer" and attacked him. Later he married her. Everyone chuckles. Bad things don't really happen in Millbrook. Or at least, bad things are not the rule. This is a town where the local punk (Kyle Schmid) gets mad because you caught his pop fly in gym class. And if the local punk threatens you later, you can forestall a beating, as Jack does, by totally capitulating. The angry punk, robbed of the catharsis of violence, will storm off.
Millbrook is a place where violence, where it happens, can make you a hero, a rescuer who purges the town of badness. When the scarred and scary Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris, Pollack) turns up in Tom's diner a few days after Tom's act of violence, he snaps, "You're the hero. You sure took care of those two bad men." He calls Tom "Joey." Joey Cusack from Philadelphia. The City of Brotherly Love. The City of Repressed Violence. Tom Stall's Chinatown. In a western, the bucolic frontier town hides a stain of cruelty that must be cleaned up by the stalwart hero. The "bad men," are the anomaly. The West is where you make a fresh start, erase the past. It is the place where "we look out for our own," as Millbrook's sheriff (Peter MacNeill) says.
To speak too much about where Cronenberg and screenwriter Josh Olsen head from here -- well, I suppose I am expected to keep my mouth shut. Is Tom Stall really Joey Cusack? Does Tom need to save his family from Fogarty's dangerous mistake? We expect Cronenberg to hit certain beats: the gunfight, the desperate rescue (which even Jack notes is a cliché), the duel with the villainous mastermind (a scene-stealing turn by William Hurt). These are all the stuff of the western. David Cronenberg, just as Ang Lee also did this past year in Brokeback Mountain, looks underneath the surface of the western, rips through American iconography. (Consider here that it apparently requires directors from Taiwan and Canada to revise the western.) Where Ang Lee's film examines the desire stirring beneath the reticent men who were expected to be silent and masculine, Cronenberg looks at the other side: how that desire manifests itself through physical violence. As Cronenberg quips to the reporters at Cannes in the featurette on this DVD, ""Sex and violence go very well together, like bacon and eggs."
Violence is always a part of us, intermingled with desire. It cannot be purged, because it is no foreign intruder. To remove the violence is to remove our human identity. I can say this about Tom's journey: it does not begin with those gunshots in his diner. There is no original state of innocence. You can look to other Cronenberg films for evidence of this. Seth Brundle in The Fly carries his own fear and anxiety through the telepod; his transformation into Brundlefly only triggers a panic that has always been lurking inside his human self. Max Renn in Videodrome programs pornography for his television station. René Gallimard in M. Butterfly believes in pure love, the deepest corruption of all. No one in a David Cronenberg film is an innocent suddenly discovering a big bad world. Violence precedes us, and it follows us. It has cost and consequence.
A History of Violence would merely be a theoretical exercise in the nature of violence, however, if Cronenberg were unable to craft the history, the story. We must be able to connect emotionally with the lives of Tom and Edie Stall, even if we cannot experience that emotional purging Aristotle promised us by the end of their tragedy. This requires delicate and careful performances. Viggo Mortensen is shaping up to be this generation's Harrison Ford (with better taste in scripts): a literate, thoughtful hunk whose power as an actor lies in his sense of nuance and not a tendency to dominate scenes. Mortensen has the ability to balance his performance with whomever he is sharing the scene. Maria Bello gives wife Edie an emotional resonance that could have easily made her the center of the film. More than simply the "dutiful wife," Edie discovers a powerful, even erotic allure to violence.
Mortensen and Bello work as the emotional core of the film, what might, in somebody else's film, be the calm center around which you could swirl the more visibly-charged performances of Ed Harris, Ashton Holmes, William Hurt, and others. But again, there are crucial moments of fury that burst from Tom and Edie as well. This might look like mere chaos without the precision of Cronenberg and his regular team (composer Howard Shore, cinematographer Peter Suschitzky, production designer Carol Spier, and others), who make this all appear effortless. Producer Chris Bender calls the atmosphere on the set of A History of Violence "zen-like" in the excellent behind-the-scenes documentary included on this DVD. As leader, Cronenberg improvises staging and muses over crucial background details. His intelligence as an artist is breathtaking: he combines a shrewd understanding of the material with an openness to chance and collaboration.
We also learn how well Cronenberg is able to shape the collaborative input of the cast and crew in order to arrive at a finished film. "The Unmaking of Scene 44" shows the creation of a dream sequence for the film's second act (we also get the completed scene with an optional commentary track by Cronenberg), and we understand clearly why it needed to be cut. His commentary track is, as always, clear and articulate: few directors are as perceptive about their own work as he is. New Line fills things out with two other short featurettes: a piece on the differences between the American, MPAA-approved version of the film and the slightly gorier international version, and a visit to the Cannes Film Festival (where Cronenberg was a past winner and Jury chair). When asked what he thinks of audience's applauding and cheering Tom's destructive acts of violence, you can almost see a twinkle in Cronenberg's eye as he says that he "wants them to be complicit in it." After all, in this family, in all families, we solve problems by shooting them.
There were some pretty good films released in 2005, but none that fuse such thematic complexity with a sharp dramatic story and rich performances from its lead actors. David Cronenberg just keeps getting better as his work matures. As a western, as a revenge tragedy, as a character study, as a love story, as a family drama, as a deconstruction of American identity, as a probing look at what makes us human -- A History of Violence nails it on so many levels it almost makes you dizzy.
I can't wait to see if David Cronenberg can top this one.
We are all guilty.
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Scales of Justice
* Golden Gavel 2006 Winner: #10
Studio: New Line
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 96 Minutes
Release Year: 2005
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Commentary Track
* "Acts of Violence" documentary
* "The Unmaking of Scene 44"
* Deleted Scene with Optional Commentary
* "Violence's History"
* "Too Commercial for Cannes"
* Theatrical Trailer
* Official Site