Saturday, November 20, 2010

A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE (2005): Search for Meaninglessness

I guess we’re supposed to be impressed with A History of Violence because David Cronenberg directs it.  So long as we don’t use the terms too precisely, the movie is well crafted.  It has almost everything that I like in a movie.  It’s suspenseful throughout, and almost everyone who plays the part of a criminal plays it well.  The dialogue is understated, and the set designs are kept simple.  The movie is only a bit over ninety minutes long and leaves little room for sentimentality.  The lead character, played by Viggo Mortensen, is convincingly tough.  Unfortunately, with all that it has going for it, the movie counts for little.  The title of the movie was probably used to keep us guessing.  It lends the impression of a cultural treatise in the form of a full-length motion picture.  What A History of Violence actually provides us with is a depiction of something called nihilism.
Two criminals, Leland Jones (Stephen McHattie) and Billy Orser (Greg Bryk), check out of a hotel by killing the manager, a maid, and a six or seven year old girl.  They then head to a small Indiana town where Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) lives.  Tom appears to be a decent husband and father.  Edie Stall (Maria Bello), his wife (who also happens to be a lawyer), adores him and occasionally makes love to him while wearing her high-school cheerleading outfit.  Their youngest son, Jack Stall (Ashton Holmes), is a polite if somewhat too well behaved teenager.  A twerp named Bobby (Kyle Schmid) bullies Jack at school.  Sarah Stall (Heidi Hayes) is five or six years of age and is primarily in the movie for her cuteness.
Tom owns a diner.  One evening right about closing time, Leland and Billy enter the restaurant.  Not content to simply rob the place (these are two psychopaths), they plan on raping the waitress before shooting the place up.  Tom surprises them by fighting back and manages to kill the both of them.  Tom becomes a hero, and stories about him appear in the paper and on television.  Now Tom’s uncomfortable with all of the publicity for an exceedingly good reason - Tom has a past.  At one time, before ever meeting Edie, Tom was a mobster in Philadelphia and went by the name of Joey Cusack.  A criminal by the name of Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris), whose eye had almost been gouged out by Joey, sees the news stories and makes his way to the Indiana town with his henchmen.  Tom and/or Joey manage to kill them all, but in the process reveal his secrets to Edie.  Edie feels distressed for a few different reasons: (1) her son Jack, who has finally had enough and who is inspired by what his father had done at the diner, gets suspended from school after badly beating up Bobby; (2) she now knows that Tom has a sinister past that has equipped him with the skills to kill about a half dozen people; and (3) all of this discussion results in Tom having a violent sexual encounter with her on the staircase of their home (through which she somehow manages to find a small amount of pleasure).
Tom feels shame.  He thought he had left his alter ego, Joey Cusack, behind many years ago, but Joey, now especially since all of the killings, is very much a part of Tom’s identity.  Tom realizes that there is only one way to get rid of Joey.  Tom needs to return to Philadelphia to confront his past.  His past is personified by his older brother, Richie Cusack (William Hurt).  Tom arranges to be taken to Richie’s mansion.  Richie then tries to kill Tom.  Tom kills another half dozen people and returns to a quiet reception at his home back in Indiana.
Though only in the movie for a short time, Harris, Bryk and especially McHattie, could not have played their roles any better.  As I mentioned above, Mortensen was perfectly cast as the lead.  Maria Bello is slightly less satisfactory, though she doesn’t distract from the movie significantly.  (However, it is amazing that women who play the part of lawyers are always so good looking.)  Ashton Holmes can’t act and his sudden assault of his enemy appears fabricated.  And Heidi Hayes did what she was supposed to do and that was act like a seven year old.
A History of Violence is entertaining and not particularly thought provoking.  I wouldn’t mind if the actual stated purpose of the director was to provide an entertaining and a not so thought provoking film.  Unfortunately, Cronenberg had a bit too much to say about his movie.  I was reading Roger Ebert’s review concerning this movie.  Ebert paraphrases Cronenberg concerning the three levels of what A History of Violence meant to the director: “It refers (1) to a suspect with a long history of violence; (2) to the historical use of violence as a means of settling disputes; and (3) to the innate violence of Darwinian evolution in which better-adapted organisms replace those less able to cope. ‘I am a complete Darwinian,’ says Cronenberg, whose new film is in many ways about the survival of the fittest – at all costs.”  This is the kind of blather that our movie critics apparently take seriously.  Ebert goes on to make much about Cronenberg’s statement of time and circumstances being deterministic regarding how we actually behave.  “I never give a moment’s thought about finding water to drink,” Ebert began.  “In New Orleans a few weeks ago, would I have been willing to steal from stores or fight other people for drinkable water?  Yes, if it meant life for myself and my family.”  This really isn’t saying anything.  Only the most deluded of saps would stand aside and watch their family members die, though Tom was doing more than stealing water for the benefit of his family.
Cronenberg is even less coherent when speaking of the violent sexual scene between the husband and wife in their home.  “It could be a rape to begin with,” Cronenberg says, “but then it’s not [rape] because it shifts in tone and becomes something else.”  Edie can allegedly “relate to” her husband’s actions towards her and becomes strangely more attracted to him with the knowledge that he is capable of such acts.  Cronenberg’s excusing of Tom’s aggression sounds remarkably similar to Louis Farrakhan’s excusing of Mike Tyson from the accusations of rape.  “How many times, sisters,” Farrakhan notoriously remarked, “have you said No and you meant Yes.”  I know that Tom’s wife at one point tacitly consented to the brutality after the mayhem had begun.  This occurs often in the minds of novelists and screenwriters.  Rhett Butler dragged Scarlett O’Hara up the stairs to their bedroom while she was hitting him in Gone With the Wind.  In Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, Howard Roark walks into the home of his beloved, Dominique, and leaves her bloodied by his passion.  In both cases, we are told that the woman ultimately enjoyed being molested.  Not to excuse such behavior that would have emotionally scarred probably all women for life, but Gone With the Wind was released in 1939, and The Fountainhead was published in 1943.  A History of Violence was released in 2005.  Obviously, this one scene cannot be taken to represent the entire movie, but it does point to serious limitations in Cronenberg’s conception of what should be tolerated.  Joey Cusack is supposed to be that untamed portion of Tom Stall’s being.  Yet such wildness to be truly commendable must also contain an element of innocence and understanding.  Tom lost all such innocence when he deliberately injured the person he claimed to care for the most.
My conclusion is that Cronenberg really does not know what he believes in.  It’s either that, or he does not believe in anything at all.  Cronenberg’s inability to think through the consequences of his characters’ actions is due to a lack of clarity or lack of integrity, and in any case has led to incongruous results concerning the movies that he has directed.  I liked his past movie, The Fly, and was disappointed in his adaptation of William Burroughs Naked Lunch.  His adoration of Burroughs has led some people to believe that Cronenberg is a pessimist.  I’ll give Cronenberg the benefit of the doubt, however, by suggesting that this is not true.  Cronenberg could not have the capacity to comprehend the works of Burroughs while at the same time spewing the non-sense that Roger Ebert had quoted above.  Cronenberg’s work is murky because he’s unsure of what he is trying to say.   This same thing can be said of many artists, and not only insignificant ones.  Cronenberg’s mistake was in wanting to be taken seriously as a thinker - and trying to foist himself upon his audience as a thinker wrecked what otherwise would have been a promising story.
August 16, 2007
© Robert S. Miller 2007

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