Last night’s screening of David Cronenberg’s
new film, A History Of Violence, further confirms what
I have long suspected of average American filmgoers: They are profoundly
turned on by violence, and put off by sex. This was made abundantly
clear to me by the audience’s reactions of loud applause for
the former, and waves of nervous, tittering laughter for the latter.
Seeing as how this was a free screening, it’s probably a
safe bet that most of the audience was unfamiliar with the work
of Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg. Never one to shy away from
either sex or violence, Cronenberg emerged from the ghetto of low-budget
horror films to achieve mainstream success with films such as The
Dead Zone and The Fly, before turning his back on
genre films to work on difficult projects like adaptations of famed
cult novels Naked Lunch and Crash.
With A History Of Violence Cronenberg moves back into
the familiar territory of genre work, this time with a film noir
that echoes classics like Out Of The Past and The Killers.
Yet he hasn’t lost his penchant for shock, or his provocative
interests in the nexus of sex and violence.
*** SPOILER ALERT***
The set up here is so classic, it’s almost boring. Tom Stall
(Mortensen) is a decent, all-American kind of guy
who enjoys dishing out coffee to the locals almost as much as he
likes giving head to his wife, but he receives some unwanted attention
after he is forced to defend himself and his business against a
pair of vicious criminals. The past catches up to Tom in the form
of an ominous visit from gangster Carl Fogarty (Harris).
It’s interesting to contrast Cronenberg’s approach
to film noir, with that of Robert Rodriguez, who
earlier this year made the Sin City, which, like A
History Of Violence, was adapted from a graphic novel. While
they both traffic in the kind of sex and violence that would have
been unthinkable during the genre’s height in the ’40s
and ’50s, stylistically they couldn’t be more different.
With the help of cutting-edge technology, Sin City dazzlingly
recreated the Basin City of the comic book, with its assortment
of hookers, monsters, and mayhem. Cronenberg attempts to recreate
the small-town America of the post-war years, the Norman
Rockwell America. And his approach as a director is spare,
yet never restrained when it comes to sex and violence.
Like many of the best films of the genre, A History Of Violence
has a tragic grace about it. And the ending achieves a haunting
grandeur. The supporting cast of Bello, Harris,
and Hurt are stellar. Yet there are flaws in Viggo
Mortensen’s double act. Some of this is Cronenberg’s
fault—overly elaborate action scenes make Mortensen look like
Jason Bourne—but the real problem is that he fails to inhabit
either identity with much personality. There are some other problems,
including a self-conscious subplot involving Tom’s son and
a sadistic jock bully. And one can point out the plot is a bit too
straightforward, lacking the delicious twists and turns that mark
the genre’s best. And yet I must confess to a special affinity
for these kinds of films. It’s such a joy to see film noir