Monday, October 10, 2005


Hand-to-hand, heart-to-heart

I saw David Cronenberg’s new flick, A History of Violence, on Friday night. I am a big fan of Cronenberg, even though I have said that he is one of those directors with only one story to tell. Videodrome was a surreal look at the psychological changes that television has wrought on us. eXistenZ was an essay on the increasing immersiveness and photoreality of video games. Crash, based on J. G. Ballard's novel of the same name, questioned whether the union of the automobile and concepts of personal and sexual freedom in American culture is entirely a good thing (it isn't). This director is absorbed by the idea that technology can change our psyches fundamentally; our perceptions, our moral compass, and even our identity.

A History of Violence is the first David Cronenberg film that doesn’t, as far as I can tell, have any commentary as its primary aim. Violence fits more comfortably into the drama genre than his other films, containing none of the disorienting shifts of time, location, and camera which were the marks of Videodrome or The Dead Zone. Instead, we get a quiet, very effective story about a man who has changed himself through a tremendous act of will, and the effect that change has on his family.

Viggo Mortensen and Maria Bello turn in great performances as Tom and Edie Stall, a married couple with two kids living in small-town Indiana, even if Viggo’s Midwestern accent slips occasionally. Stephen McHattie and Greg Bryk will be overlooked for their work as a couple of bandits on the run, who open the film in a long, continuous scene that is pure acting magic. I never get tired of looking at Ed Harris’s expressive, craggy features, and William Hurt, like a fine wine, gets better with age (although his Philly accent needs a little work, too). Ashton Holmes (as Tom and Edie’s son Jack Stall) and Kyle Schmid (as Bobby Jordan, the local BMOC and high school asshole) have a certain geek/bully chemistry. Their subplot, however, is only somewhat effective at mirroring the vicious acts of fisticuffs and gunplay that pin down the main story.

After all, not everything is sugarplums and gumdrops. The movie does fulfill the promise of its title several times. Lest we forget, this is the director who gave us the exploding-head-guy in Scanners. David Cronenberg has always been comfortable with portraying the messy, physical vulnerability of the human body and the sexual pull hidden inside pain and violence. The difference is that in A History of Violence, these effects are purely personal, and don’t have some allegorical scope. The violence is not Man Versus Nature, or Man Versus Man, but only mano a mano.

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