Thursday, October 13, 2005

More Canadian Content! --
David Cronenberg:
Film-maker with a history of violence

[On the remote chance that you’ve heard of this movie without learning about its plot tricks, be warned that there are major spoilers in what follows.]

“It was evident to me from the beginning that this was a very American story set in middle America, almost a garden of Eden, perfect American town. Of course that made it perfect to be shot completely in Canada,” quipped director David Cronenberg at an interview during the Cannes Film Festival last May, following the première of his new movie A History of Violence.

He got the round of knowing chuckles he was looking for from the press, and accomplished two things with this one glib little swipe. First he gave the requisite nod to an assumed superiority of Canada over the United States, and the former’s greater likelihood of yielding up an idyllic environment for shooting his film. But he also hinted at the more pertinent point that this idealized “American-dream” setting is itself a fantasy and does not really exist anywhere, certainly not in America—the aura of peace and happiness is a veneer over dark secrets and darkened natures.

None of that will come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the Cronenberg portfolio. My own familiarity is limited to the few of his films that I have managed to sit all the way through, plus a couple of others from which I have seen clips that generally made me wish to see no more (Rabid and Scanners come to mind). Together these were enough to illustrate what I understand to be a continuing Cronenbergian theme of the corrosive power of inner demons.

In their crudest rendering, the inner demons are manifested in physical form, in microbial and parasitical critters that transform, devour, and issue forth from their hosts in some creepy and disgusting way. Cronenberg’s later films, while carrying on with as much of his favored sex’n’gore combo as he can paste in, treat the inner demons as more psychological in origin, though still connected to the physical.

When he’s serious, as in The Fly, he can use out-of-control physiological manifestations to ferry talented actors into the realm of real suffering and tragedy. But mostly the actors seem to get there in spite of the visuals rather than by means of them— Cronenberg is known for going for the gross-out shot that is gratuitous and intrusive, and the actor is lucky if he can transcend it.

I have never been able to shake the sense that even if Cronenberg is on to something regarding human frailty, he is handicapped by a modern secularism which fetters the expression of his ideas to the material realm—everything determinative resides in the body, and where destiny is dark (as it usually is), the body is a vessel for all that is vile and repulsive.

He makes the shopworn claim that an exploration of ideas and human behaviors is incomplete without the physical and sexual (implying that there is something daring or unconventional about his insistence on including this stuff--- yawn, snore, blah, blah…), but one can detect in his work a curiously conventional, almost Puritanical hostility or revulsion towards the body. From within the secularist’s frame of reference— that we are thralls at the mercy of our material selves—he appears to believe that our “master” is one cruel and twisted overseer.

Maybe this is just Cronenberg’s particular version of a Canadian “thing” about which Margaret Atwood has written in her lit-crit works [such as Strange Things: The Malevolent North in Canadian Literature and Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature] – her theory being that the wild and forbidding Canadian landscape shapes its inhabitants into people with an eye for the dark and violent. (If it sounds like I’ve read these works, confession time: I haven’t. I didn’t grow up in Canada, and was thus never force-fed “Can-lit” in school. Everyone I know who was, has urged me not to invest precious reading time in the works of Atwood and company, so I seldom do. I’ve read more about Miss Peggy than by her.)

As to the Canadian thing: I don’t think this year’s Cannes Film Festival made quite as much ado about the duelling Canadian directors, Cronenberg and Atom Egoyan, as was made of them back here at home. Egoyan has been less commercially successful and recognizable outside the cinéaste cocoon than fellow-countryman Cronenberg, since his work is usually “edgier”—that’s a film-speak code-word for “contains more graphic deviant sex than most people care to see. I can’t recall ever seeing an Egoyan film all the way through—about ten minutes of Exotica, his “study” of lap-dancing catering to paedophilic fantasy via the packaging of pre-teen looks in a school uniform, satisfied what little curiosity I might have had about his work. His entry this year is Where the Truth Lies, which will probably tank at the box office owing to the NC-17 rating it received in the United States, about which he has complained bitterly but declined to shave any frames off the artistically important three-way sodomy scene. Cronenberg came away from Cannes with big “buzz”—Egoyan, not so much.

I read a few post-Cannes reviews of A History of Violence (written up in magazines about film as ART with a capital A), and they left me wondering if another of my favorite actors (Viggo Mortensen) was going to be permanently “Cronenberged” for me the way Jeremy Irons was after starring in Dead Ringers, a revolting and pointless tale about twin gynecologists sharing mutual kinks for a woman with a deformed uterus. (It was every bit the gutter-ball it sounds—double yuck.) Up until that point I had been ready to see just about anything Irons was in, but since then I find I can barely look at him—even revisiting his younger self’s tour-de-force in my beloved Brideshead Revisited began to carry a little residual gyne-goo on it.

Worse, doing Dead Ringers seemed to provoke some appetite in Irons for “edgy" stuff (see above definition) and he spiraled into M. Butterfly, Damage, and Lolita. It would be a shame to see Mortensen swirl down that same plug-hole, since he’s already misspent much of his movie career in the bilge tank, in such forgettable efforts as The Prophecy (an incoherent, fall-off-your-chair-laughing religio-horror flick— Mortensen actually does a respectable job as Lucifer, the one well-drawn character in the entire script), or Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III (self-explanatory).

The reviews of A History of Violence in magazines about film as ART, written by people who frequent festivals of film as ART, described in clinical detail its explosive gore, jarring comedy, and unconventional sexual acts, and prepared me for something disturbing and a bit sleazy. But that’s not the film I saw. It made me wonder if maybe the Cannes screening was a director’s cut with frames that didn’t make it into general distribution— but I’m more inclined to think it’s a difference in the viewers’ moral universe: skewed and cynical agnostics saw one thing, those of us with faith in humanity and God saw something else.

I had the advantage of watching the film on a Saturday afternoon with only a couple of dozen people in the audience (on its opening weekend—this does not augur well), most of them older than the target movie demographic of 15-25. As a result I was not subjected to the sort of contagious teenage-dumbass over-reaction which apparently has produced gales of laughter at many a screening of the film. (I gather this was the case at Cannes, so now we know that all those European sophisticates are operating at the level of teenage-dumbass.)

Cronenberg gets off on the idea that he is duping his audience into complicity with what is truly horrible by manipulating them into reflexive laughter or cheering at the first sight of it, thereby proving his cynical social Darwinist view of humanity. But I think he has unwittingly undermined his own objective, thanks to the hole in his own moral universe.

Ostensibly Cronenberg presents the audience with two possible scenarios—is the central character what he appears to be, or something entirely different?— and they must puzzle over which one to accept as the reality of the story. But the two competing scenarios prove to be a lopsided mis-match, because the storyteller himself (Cronenberg) does not accept that either version could be equally plausible, for Tom Stall or any other man. He believes that one of them (the happy family in the peaceful town) is universally a myth, and the other (dark secrets and darkened natures) is universal reality.

Still, for the sake of the drama one would think that Cronenberg would at least set the scene for the myth by constructing a credible façade of normalcy, even if he intends to bring it crashing down later.

However, this director’s personal cynicism is telegraphed immediately when the viewer meets the family at the centre of the story. In the opening scene the four family characters come together around a child’s nightmare, and form a portrait more oozingly cloying than the Brady Bunch’s worst TV moments. As the story advances they do ease up a bit on the cloy-o-meter, and eventually the two principal actors (Mortensen and Maria Bello, as Tom and Edie Stall) sink their teeth into superb performances that vastly out-class the unworthy material they have been given, raising it to the level of tragedy.

If Cronenberg has any real genius it may lie in his casting (with one glaring exception: the young daughter, Sarah, played so obnoxiously badly that, as her family is increasingly threatened, concern for her welfare barely registers with the audience). Young newcomer Ashton Holmes, as the Stalls’ teenaged son Jack, does his best with a weirdly-drawn character, much of whose dialogue sounds like unused scraps left over from Seth Cohen in television’s The O.C. That’s not necessarily fatal to his believability—kids in rural Indiana watch cable like everybody else.

However, with a mother who has been to law school, and an intact supportive family, he would be unlikely to envision for himself the kind of bleak future where kids “get jobs, have affairs, and become alcoholics,” as he describes to his high school friend while smoking a joint and loitering on a Saturday night streetcorner. Anyone familiar with the place of college in American culture (like me, for instance, having put three kids through small American colleges) would be aware of the heightened sense of life’s possibilities felt by most American youth, compared to the tell-me-what-hoops-to-jump-through-so-I-can-get-a-job attitude typical of too many university-bound Canadians. The film attributes to Jack Stall a “trailer-trash” hopelessness which is a staple of anti-American stereotypes, but it is a poor fit for this particular boy.

Cronenberg has said he had no idea when he first read the script that it came from a graphic novel, yet the story and characters are baldly cartoonish. The dramatic complications are built on a mound of clichés, with dialogue suited to one-dimensional good and bad guys; the parallel to “old-style westerns,” which the director himself has invoked, is an apt one. There are plot holes** you can drive a truck through (speaking of clichés…), which one might be able to ignore if the rest of the film were similarly flimsy—but the painful unraveling of the two main characters’ relationship is being played out so convincingly that the film’s weak spots are magnified.

Cronenberg’s basic operating premise is that the happy family and the peaceful town are cartoon myths that need deconstructing (a point of view which is itself a modern intellectual cartoon); the audience is supposed to go “hmmm” about the age-old nature-versus-nurture debate (snooze), as various characters whose heretofore peaceable existences are shattered not just by tooth-rattling incidents of violence, but by an apparently deep-seated appetite for it.

“Violence is inevitable,” Mortensen said in a post-première interview. “It exists—it will always exist. But we have free will. We can choose.”

I’m not sure that is Cronenberg’s message in this film—there is a distinct whiff of determinism about it. Yes, Tom Stall made a free choice to put his violent past behind him, but when it is summoned up by circumstance, we are supposed to see not just impulse, but genuine killer instinct. Peter Travers of Rolling Stone buys right into this (with the appropriate anti-American twist): “Cronenberg knows Americans have a history of violence,” he writes. “It's wired into our DNA. Without a hint of sermonizing, he shows how we secretly crave what we publicly condemn, and how we even make peace with it.”

Other critics get on board with this bromide. Desson Thomson [Washington Post]: A History of Violence forces us to confront our Pavlovian conditioning to violence.” Jonathan Rosenbaum [Chicago Reader]: “Whether violence begets violence, whether perception is reality, whether a destructive animal instinct for combat really is lodged in the peaceful heart of every man—these are the themes that entertain Cronenberg…” (and put the rest of us to sleep?!!)

Allison Benedikt at the Chicago Tribune sees through the pretensions: “Cronenberg squeezes in his requisite social commentary, but the criticism feels detached and tends to lean toward the obvious, with Tom’s cross always hanging out of his shirt after he gives someone a serious beating.” Yes, the cross is a symbolic truncheon, reminiscent of the red surgical scrubs featured in Dead Ringers, fashioned to look like the robes of a Catholic Cardinal, suggesting (wham, wham goes the hammer) how doctors are the modern high priesthood of science—ooh, insight! (Costumes by Cronenberg’s sister Denise, for both films.)

[Sidebar: Cusack”, Tom Stall’s alter ego, is an Irish name— so just to make things juicy, one can speculate that the killer-for-hire and his mobster brother were brought up Catholic! (Thanks a lot.) This may explain the cross, since Protestant men are not much given to wearing them. Tom hears a “See ya in Church” from a diner customer, more commonly a born-again Protestant expression than a Catholic one.

One thing is certain: don’t waste any time wondering if the references to Christianity reveal any ambivalence or nuance about religion on Cronenberg’s part—feel free to read the signs as the tiresome clichés about religious hypocrisy that they are. As he told the New York Times, "I'm an atheist, and so I have a philosophical problem with … God and heaven and hell and all that stuff. I'm not just a nonbeliever, I'm an antibeliever—I think it's a destructive philosophy."]

Peter Travers fleetingly detects something rather more important about the story, at least as it has been delivered by the two lead performances: “The family tableau that ends the film is as chilling and redemptive as anything Cronenberg has ever crafted.”

Does Cronenberg ever craft things that are “redemptive”? I haven’t seen enough of his work to pronounce definitively on that, but it would surprise me if that were his conscious aim.

My feeling, however, is that Cronenberg has indeed grappled with the Big O— that is, Original Sin, a largely misunderstood and wholly Christian concept—the one Christian belief, according to G.K. Chesterton, whose existence is absolutely self-evident.

[Sidebar: as defined by the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Original Sin is a state of deprivation of original holiness and justice… a human nature wounded (but not totally corrupted), subject to ignorance, suffering, and the dominion of death, and inclined to sin.]

David Cronenberg doesn’t accept any of this, of course. So he nibbles at the edges of the real story, and never pursues it down its own logical path. When you refuse to buy into the primacy of the spiritual, yet you still want to explain the persistence of evil in the same world where there is love and beauty and goodness, you will inevitably be trapped inside the memory of blood and shattered bone, degenerative disease and deformity, and the split-second passage between the person and the corpse. You will also be trapped in the hyper-significance of that other split-second Big O, the orgasm.

There, in the materialist shadowlands, sits David Cronenberg, film-maker: aspiring artist trapped in a low-rent ghoul.

Believers in Original Sin watch a film like A History of Violence with more seriousness, but less despair, than those who don’t believe.

For the life of me I don’t understand how people could roar with laughter at any point in this film. There are certainly some light moments— Tom’s explanation of how he came up with his alias is genuinely funny (“It was available”), but only mildly so, a very human vapidity in a moment of huge crisis, as he sputters, desperately and lamely, to hold his house of cards together.

The much-vaunted exchange between father and son— (Tom) “In this family we do not solve problems by hitting people.” (Jack) “No, in this family we shoot them!”—is ironic and absurd,but hardly guffaw material, considering the context. I was most struck by the way Mortensen delivered his half of it, flat and unconvincing because his character knows what an empty platitude it is.

More than one reviewer found the two sex scenes funny—I’m afraid the comedy eludes me. The first one is a warm and playful romp that could only happen between long-time lovers. Despite its involving a position that would probably cause Pat Robertson’s ears to stick out even further and flap with alarm, it is nevertheless (in my view) so intimate and affectionate that watching it made me feel more like an intruding voyeur than any cinematic sex ever has before— this was a real invasion of privacy.

The second sex scene, by contrast, is nearly a rape, and is deeply disturbing to watch, not just for its violence but for its incongruity within the story. Maybe we can swallow the idea that Tom could, for an instant, blindly lash out at his wife when she rejects his gesture of conciliation. But when he forces her down with a chokehold it’s plausibility that takes the beating, despite the fact that once she is flattened he regains his senses and begins to release her.

That’s when things get really unpalatable and unbelievable, for it is Edie who pulls Tom back toward her and begins to devour him, having found herself sexually charged up by his violent assault. What follows is rough and desperate sex, not wholly devoid of the remnants of their bond, but still too huge a stretch for the story.

It is quite astonishing that a film-maker in the 21st century has the gall to offer his audience the repugnant and misogynist myth that women get turned on by being beaten. And it is discouraging that a modern young actress acquiesced to this director’s proposition. Cronenberg says of the scene:

Edie’s dealing with someone she doesn’t know—a Tom/Joey hybrid creature, and she finds that repulsive and exciting at the same time. Joey’s violence does have an erotic component… It’s the best sex she’s ever had, and also the most terrifying. Does she want more of it or not?

Elsewhere he says:

Sex and violence have always got on very well together, like bacon and eggs. I think there is always a sexual component in violence and a violent component in sexuality, to me that’s just a natural thing to explore. As George Bernard Shaw said, ‘Conflict is the essence of drama.’

Very symmetrically put, but no, not deep, not clever, not natural, and not true—and what does Shaw have to do with it? That bit is just a non sequitur.

Sorry, I’m not buying. Maria Bello has done too good a job of creating a realistic loving wife for us to graft this hackneyed grotesquerie on to it.

The actress commented shortly after the film wrapped that for the period when this scene was being shot she felt ill at the prospect of going in to work in the morning; she also noted that the large scab shown on her back in the film was a real injury incurred during the shooting. Well, she should have listened to her inner rumblings and told her director to stuff it— that scene was a violation of her character as well as her personal dignity.

Sure, Edie experiences the feeling of being simultaneously attracted and repelled by the husband she thought she knew—drawn to his obvious suffering, as he clings like a drowning man to shards of the refuge he had constructed for himself; yet horrified by the capacity for efficient mayhem he has suppressed for nearly 20 years.

But I don’t believe for a minute that this woman could give herself over to orgasm after being slapped and choked— and I really don’t accept the notion that the man who has known nothing but tenderness with her all those years could give himself over to choking and thumping her in a sustained assault. Cronenberg added both the sex scenes to the script (surprise, surprise). While one was at least a believable character study, both were unnecessary and disruptive in their way— the first gave “too much information!” as the saying goes, and the second violated the logic of both characters.

Graphic sex has a way of taking the audience out of the story and into the reality of the actors’ personal selves, which does neither the story nor the performers any favours. As actors these two have more than enough talent to have communicated in their eyes and faces every emotional nuance that either sex scene served, unimpeded by the intrusive realities of, for instance, yet another cinematic flash of Viggo Mortensen’s photogenic buttocks. (Ditto the later frontal flash from Bello.) How much nuance was communicated by that unexpected moonrise?

[Sidebar: It is no great compliment to Mortensen that his star-turn in Lord of the Rings has taken him from being a B or C-list actor in the front ranks of every director’s rolodex under the category “Willing To Get Naked And Have Sex On Screen” – to now being an A-list actor, still in the front ranks of the rolodex under "W.T.G.N.A.H.S.O.S.". I’ve never seen Maria Bello in anything else, but apparently her name is in that same part of the rolodex. (As one reviewer put it, “She’s never heard the words “No Nudity clause.”) What a sad way to get work— neither of them will ever know if that’s a deciding factor in their being cast in anything.]

Bottom line (as it were) — even if we pretend for the moment that the sex scenes contribute to the story, where and how they struck anyone as “funny” is quite beyond me.

The only places I can imagine spontaneous laughter breaking out are the aftermath shots of the gun battles, but these are not “funny ha-ha” or even “funny peculiar”—they’re just ludicrous. The flesh-blasting and bone-crunching always seem to exceed the credible capacities of the weapons and fisticuffs which produce them, and the prosthetic and technically-generated enhancements are glaringly obvious. Allison Benedikt nails it again:

Cronenberg may want to say something important about violence, but he’s also head over heels for it, ending each gunfight and neck-breaking with a close-up on the victim, blood either pooling behind his head or brains spilling from his face. Big laughs.

There were no big laughs either time I saw the film, though on my second viewing there were persistent titters during the final shoot-out— these, however, issued from a trio of teenagers skipping school, who talked steadily throughout the film (perhaps made twitchy by the array of small metal objects perforating their lips, chins, and eyebrows beneath greasy dyed bangs). This was teenage-dumbass at work, and not to be taken too seriously.

It’s worth mentioning, however, that it is a huge challenge not to elicit laughs when the bodies pile up in any sort of drama — I’m thinking particularly of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. It takes a fairly able director to pull off the domino-of-death climax without getting hoots from his audience. That doesn’t mean we’re all ghouls— it just means that some scenes don’t work with modern audiences or perhaps were not even very well-written to begin with. How many theatre companies even bother to do Titus Andronicus these days?

One can’t be blamed for suspecting that Cronenberg’s subconscious aim is to make the audience complicit not so much in society’s dark side as in his own— as in, “Hey, I’m not a kinky weirdo if everybody else is just like me.” The gore-fests in this film are fast and forgettable, and the fact that they didn’t set me or my fellow adult movie-goers giggling is probably due to our having dismissed them as silly distractions, preferring to move on and focus on the good acting work.

So, what about the Big Themes as I see them, Original Sin and redemption? I’m not going to claim that this is what the film is really about, or what it ought to be about. Merely that this is what the film could have been about. I doubt these themes interest the graphic novelists, I know David Cronenberg doesn’t believe in their existence, but I do think that the lead actors were working with them, whether they knew it or not. (I’m not sure actors ever know intellectually what they’re working with, but instead draw on instincts and a reservoir of unarticulated observations collected by osmosis.)

Tom Stall used to be Joey Cusack, and apparently (although back-story details about everybody in the film are a little sketchy) he used to kill for a living. He was good at it, having lightning reactions, overwhelming martial arts skills, and deadly accurate aim. At some point he lost his taste for that life, went out into the desert for three years, and remade himself. (Very John the Baptist, very Jesus, very St. Anthony of Egypt—or so it resonates with me.) Somehow he ended up in Millbrook, Indiana, met and married a local beauty with brains, and settled down into peaceful anonymity.

What happened out there in the desert? Did Joey transform himself into the consummate con artist, out of total self-interest? Or did he undergo a genuine conversion? I’m willing to wrestle with those questions because I believe that either possibility could actually happen. David Cronenberg stacks the deck against Tom because he doesn’t buy into conversion—real conversion, real fundamental change in human self-understanding, real exercise of self-mastery. When violence re-asserts itself in Tom’s life, we are given to understand that the nature of Joey Cusack has merely lain dormant and is instinctively unleashed to repeat its familiar patterns. We are expected to blur the distinctions between murder-for-hire and legitimate self-defense or protection of the defenseless.

It’s not so surprising that an artistic collaboration— issuing as it does from a community of people predominantly wedded to the socially irresponsible principle of mindless pacifism— asks us to see no difference between self-defense and deliberate homicide. These are the same sort of folk who cast the word “murder” as a net to include police shootings (where the target is a racial minority), war (where death is inflicted by Americans in uniform—avoiding the term when referring to terrorists in street-clothes), and moral prohibitions of condom-use (where the source is the Catholic Church).

Cronenberg wants to impute guilt to the audience that takes satisfaction in the deaths of the first set of hoodlums, as if there is no difference between Tom shooting them and them shooting the hotel staff and their child, or (as they intended to do) the diner waitress. But there is a difference-- spare us the "moral equivalence" stuff. Tom is not free to choose to do nothing to stop them. It is his duty to intervene, with "extreme prejudice” if necessary.

It is traumatizing to be the agent of violent death, but Tom’s response is not excessive just because it is professionally effective; nor is there excess in his son’s later decision to pick up the shotgun and save his father. Cheering at these deaths is a kind of childish release of tension, but any viewer whose sense of justice feels satisfied is “complicit” in nothing, and need not apologize. Sometimes you do end up solving your problems by hitting or shooting because you’ve run out of options and innocent lives are at stake. Mario Bello is less reticent than her director on this subject regarding her own child:

I don't think you understand what levels or what fears [sic] until you have a child of your own. I mean, I've never loved someone so much and I've never been so afraid in my life. And the truth is I would kill someone, whoever tried to hurt him. I would. I have no doubt about it.

There are, by my count, ten shootings (or deaths by other skull-cracking means—it all happens too fast to enable a coroner’s report on the spot) in A History of Violence, all of which are unambiguously done in self-defense or defense of others in extreme jeopardy. (One could argue that Richie Cusack’s death is nearly an execution, but he has a gun tucked under his arm and has made his intention to kill Joey/Tom abundantly clear.)

Roger Ebert makes the persuasive argument that, “If Tom Stall had truly been the cheerful small-town guy he pretended to be, he would have died in that diner. It was Joey who saved him.” However, we have all heard of ordinary folk who have done extraordinarily heroic things in an emergency, made possible by nothing more than a flood of adrenalin released by their sense of duty and concern for others in need. It is possible that Tom Stall’s reflexes are stimulated by at least a mixture of altruism, fear, and an expertise at survival—it is not necessary to believe that old appetites play a part in the action.

Is Joey Cusack capable of conversion and redemption? Real, permanent redemption? The quick answer to that is the Catholic one, which holds that any and all human beings are capable of redemption, but that no conversion should ever be assumed to be permanent while we are still alive—we (Catholics) do not believe that one is ever “saved” on earth (as the Evangelicals express it in the past tense, tying it to one transformative temporal instant), but we must strive for continuous conversion all the time, every day. (St. Thomas Aquinas is quoted in the Catechism: “There is nothing to prevent human nature’s being raised up to something greater, even after sin." And St. Paul: “Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.”)

Genuine, unsalvageable psychopaths do exist, but they are rare. On the evidence at hand (in particular his changed way of life), Joey/Tom is afflicted by no deeper defect than that which we all carry, a vision clouded by Original Sin. Like all other men, Joey need not be fated to be a slave to his past if he chooses another path. He can “put on the new man” as St. Paul exhorts us, and even, like Paul, and Peter, and Abraham before them, enshrine his new life in a new name. (A more clever writer might have called this character “Paul [Saul] Thomas” instead of “Thomas Stall,” layering on the symbolism of faltering doubt and conversion. But a more clever writer would not have written this particular screenplay at all. Clever actors improved upon it.)

Joey/Tom journeys to sue for truce with his criminal brother, and perhaps bring closure to his own criminal past. He enters the house unarmed, so there is no question of premeditation. Later, having fought savagely and killed to save himself, he slinks home and tries to take his place at the family table, sitting down to face the wreckage of what he once had. There is clearly a desire to rebuild, expressed in tentative, tortured looks and gestures on the part of all of them, but everything that once held them together is gravely damaged.

The believer in sin and redemption also believes in forgiveness, a Herculean task for this family. If they inhabit a universe where there are no moral distinctions between homicide and self-defense, they will be overpowered by the fatalistic belief that violence is in the blood, from generation to generation. But if they believe in free will, they will know that forgiveness and conversion are possible.

The one completely unsettled issue at the end of this story is that of justice and restitution. The “born-again” Tom will never have peace when he has never answered for his earlier crimes. And if he is re-admitted to the family circle, their peace will likely always be at the mercy of the next shadow from his past. This is a dilemma with no conceivable resolution (except perhaps, ironically, the Witness Protection Program the sheriff imagines Tom is already in!)— a dilemma which the Stalls around the dinner table are nowhere close to confronting yet. The best you can say about the final tableau is that it offers a glimmer of hope.

Rounding off the corners of A History of Violence are the performances of Ed Harris and William Hurt, who are winning heaps of praise from most quarters for, in my view, taking an expert ride astride the broken-down horses which are their tired gangster roles. High opinion of Harris’s skillful characterization seems universal, but critics either love or despise Hurt’s hammy cameo.

The film score works well, as underplayed Copland-like Americana, contributed by Howard Shore of Lord of the Rings fame. The lighting is noticeable, which is a bad thing—everything is under-illuminated, sometimes as if in tunnel-vision. (Again, all the subtlety of wham, wham goes the hammer.)

The setting successfully evokes the little bite of Eden that some of us know is real. David Cronenberg needs to join those of us who have actually passed some time in Franklin, (Tennessee), Phelps (Wisconsin), Marietta (Georgia), Randolph (Vermont ), Crystal Falls (Michigan), Mineola (Texas), Bardstown (Kentucky), Jacksonville (Oregon), Sackett’s Harbor (New York), and Epping (New Hampshire) before he pontificates to us that the peaceful American town is a fool’s fantasy. He don’t know squat about it.

Joshua Tyler at writes one of the better “emperor has no clothes” reviews of this film, making precisely the point that Cronenberg just doesn’t know “normal”:

I don’t think Cronenberg has any concept of what normal people are like… The movie feels like he’s been stuck in a filmmaking vacuum for so long he’s no longer properly able to differentiate between fantasy and what the world is like out here for the rest of us… There’s a gripping, intense experience buried in History of Violence, but Cronenberg’s embarrassing and awkward unfamiliarity with normalcy degrades it.

On a personal note from the world of us normal folks, I couldn’t write a word about this movie without mentioning my young friend April Mullen, the girl who gives great scream over her hot fudge sundae when the first round of bad guys rolls into Stall’s Diner. She's already had a bigger audience, I think, than she’ll get with this movie: the millions upon millions who watched her portray Mary Magdalene in the unsurpassed Toronto Way of the Cross for World Youth Day 2002. But now she’s been seen (and heard!) at Cannes, and good things may well be in store for her. I wish her the best of luck (and pray she steers clear of that rolodex).

Thanks to the skewed agnostic critics of film as ART, I was fully prepared to hate A History of Violence, but found that I couldn’t. Some of it is just too well done. It’s a shame that on the whole it is so much less than it might have been. It’s a chuckle to hear the cast of this film lauding their director (chacun a son ghoul, I guess) for giving them the freedom to play their parts as they saw them. The truth is, they left him eating their dust.


Heads up, look out for **plot holes! Just for starters:
The Baddies --
The two drifting bad guys who set the plot in motion are obviously on the lam from some previous crime. (Oh so obviously-- their expository dialogue is clumsier than the cloying family portrait that follows it. "Keep heading east, huh? Avoid the big cities, right?") Their strategy is to make slow progress over thousands of miles, through backwoods locations where everyone will know that they are strangers as they commit needlessly savage acts in pursuit of piddling amounts of money, thereby bringing maximum attention to themselves and leaving a messy trail of evidence where it can be easily detected. Blowing people away in the diner on the main street of a small town in broad daylight for the contents of the cash register is just another brilliant move. These guys are suicidal idiots. How could they possibly have eluded capture anywhere in the last five hundred miles, long before they hit Indiana??!!!!

The Goody --
Tom Stall pops up in Indiana and lives for the better part of two decades without ever having contact with any family member or friend from his past, and managing never to reveal a single chink in the armor of his adopted identity. He has been married for 17 years to a woman smart enough to finish law school who has been content to see no evidence whatsoever of his life before he met her, yet professes shock when she learns he's not who she thought he was. Having successfully maintained his cover story all these years, when the jig is finally up Tom's attempts to cover his tracks couldn't be more unprepared or lame. ("What do you think you heard?" he transparently asks Edie from his hospital bed.) How did he manage to get married, buy a house and a diner, and file his income taxes, while sharing his life with a lawyer, and never have a past?

The Wifey --
Tom's situation has clearly been eased by his having an incurious wife who is clueless to the fact that his background is full of holes. But hey! How much do we really know about Edie? Presumably she has a family, maybe living right in Millbrook-- did they never want to know anything about her husband? Why does no one in this close-knit family ever mention Grandma or Uncle Howie? What is Edie trying to hide? Who is this woman? Hmmmmmm.....

Favourite critical comment about the director:
"As a filmmaker whose roots are in horror films, Cronenberg has mutated over the last few decades as a true original filmmaker."
[Brian Eggert, film guide on