Warning: This review may contain spoilers that will surprise you if you weren’t smart enough to figure the surprises out from the trailer. This review also describes weird sex acts and moments of gratuitous violence. In other words, the review is worth reading even if it ruins this dud of a film.
Canadian-born/bred/hardwired filmmaker David Cronenberg has crafted a nearly thirty-year career out of making creepy, emotionally distant yet visually obvious horror-dramas that all deduce the same conclusion: The worst things about life and about humans in general all come from within. His early, low-budget efforts involved sexually-charged parasites that do not cease with consumption at their initial hosts. Perhaps his most famous underground film, 1981’s Scanners was a film about controlled thoughts so potent it would blow people’s heads up. The 1986 remake of The Fly, easily his biggest mainstream hit, was about a romance doomed by a man becoming a fly after his experiment was tainted. Cronenberg also has a fetish for morbid flesh wounds that only exacerbate his desire to show internal wounds spilling out for the world to see. If it’s not heads blowing up, it’s the abdomen VCR from Videodrome or sex addicts “making love” to wounds in Crash or the flesh gun in eXistenZ. To some, Cronenberg is the ultimate in psychological gamesmanship; constantly challenging the instincts and stomachs of the audience.
For me, Cronenberg’s themes and images are a bit too obvious. Every piece suggests sex and violence are one of the same and both should be celebrated. The fact people repress these urges cause these very same urges to rebel against the person in sometimes fatalistic results. Why else would all of Cronenberg’s wounds so closely resemble vaginas and, in fact, stand in for the sexual organ from time to time? I suppose this consistent theme would be fine except for the fact that all of Cronenberg’s repressive landscapes all seem so phony and staged, as though the only person who wouldn’t believe them to be unreal were…characters in a David Cronenberg film! Without much ingenuity as a story crafter, he attempts to compensate by photographing everything at long, distant angles as though the excessiveness of details in every shot will distract from the sheer obviousness of them.
So opens his new film, the pronouncement-in-a-title A History of Violence. The camera sits far away from two men carrying on a casual conversation outside of a motel. Only after their conversation does the camera draw itself into the interior to see the moment was anything but casual. These two guys will play a more prominent role in the film but this opening shot already tells the audience everything it needs to know about the thought-process of the film: No matter how normal everything looks on the outside, it will be bloody and sinister on the inside. When we meet Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen), a small-town diner owner in Indiana, something already seems amiss. Could it be Howard Shore’s “More-Copeland-than-Copeland” Americana soundtrack? Could it be his wife Edie (Maria Bello), the blonde-bombshell lawyer who will dress up like a high-school cheerleader as they pull off a 69-er? (This moment couldn’t be more obvious than if Bello performed the scene while mashing apple pie into her face.) Could it be his son Jack (Ashton Holmes), who plays that all-American sport of baseball? Or could it be Viggo, who despite his good looks has that crooked glance and funny grin that just says something is not right? Let’s face it, ladies: You don’t want to “F” this guy because he seems stable. He’s hot and dangerous. More than likely, there’s more to Tom Stall if Mortensen got the role.
As one might guess, all of this subtle “American-ness” is peeled away when two thugs burst into Tom’s diner and begin wielding guns and threatening customers. Tom quickly dispatches the two much to the surprise of his co-workers and patrons. The only one not stunned is Tom, who pulls off moves only Steven Segal could master with three stunt men at his disposal. A media storm follows, attracting the interest of Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris), a heavy with an eye scar that makes Harris like the spook from A Beautiful Mind if he’d went to the Joker’s plastic surgeon. Fogarty believes Tom is really Joey Cusack, a now-hiding gangster from Philadelphia. Tom is adamant and Fogarty’s wound might impair his ability to recognize even someone he has full hatred towards. Fogarty and his men stick around causing Tom to get angrier and more reclusive about his actions. This attitude gets past along to Jack who violently handles a school bully (Kyle Schmid), a jock who gets waaaaaaaay too worked up about a gym-class baseball defeat. All of this accumulates into a second-act climax that should have marked the third-act close where “shocking” news about Tom’s life are reveled.
Many apologists would argue that any of Violence’s revelations are beyond the point; the film is ultimately a meditation on the nature of violence and the societal reaction to it. I have already heard Violence referred to as a post-modern, moralistic Western and likened to Unforgiven. The problem is Cronenberg has made a morality tale without infusing a lick of morality into it. Everyone who dies or gets beat up in this film save the opening moments deserves their fate. They’re Central Casting killers or school bullies who should model for Hollister. Is this supposed to be a negative reflection on my role as an audience member? Should I resist such thoughts even when those being hurt are so bad? (Add liberal, shrieking hysterics here) I would proclaim Cronenberg was just rubbing my face into the violence I crave except Cronenberg seems to love the violence as much as anyone, especially me. There’s a moment where the camera pans to a gunshot victim and Cronenberg focuses in on the blubbering broken jaw exposed by the tattered flesh. (It looks like a worked-up cooter for Pete’s sake!) Another gets his nose pounded up into his brain in a scene of beautiful choreography. Most starlets don’t get this type of affection from a director. Cronenberg has built a career on celebrating violence and disgusting excess. Now I am supposed to believe that he wants to reject it without any context
Tom’s development as central character is also executed in a disastrous fashion. He has done bad things in his past but that behavior is now put to good use. So, it would seem that he has redeemed himself by protecting his family. Or he has simply exposed them to a madman. Cronenberg tries to prove the latter with a disturbingly weird sex scene that could easily be described as rape. But the way Mortensen and Bello handle the scene, it’s almost like the moment’s violent nature causes the climax for both. There’s no doubt in the audience’s mind that this became pleasurable. Cronenberg then proceeds with a third act where Tom proceeds upon a journey to put his old self down for good. But there’s zero catharsis, confronting these vicious thugs is a reward onto itself. At that point, one wonders if there was development for this character at all.
But I forgot: This is a meditation on violence. Yes, Cronenberg meditating that violence kicks ass and that gunshot wounds turn him on. Violence is nothing more than a preachy Death Wish with Indiana skyscapes. If you watch films for the liberating spirit of jolting violence, you may celebrate it with the director. For the rest of that expect more from characters and dialogue, it may very well make your head explode. “Be afraid. Be very afraid.”