Saturday, September 24, 2005

A History of Violence - Review

I never gave David Cronenberg’s films a shot until recently. Perhaps it was his horror roots that kept me away, or the unfair comparison with Lynch that critics seem to have made cliché, but either way I never found time to see his material. A huge mistake as my discovery of such works as Naked Lunch, Dead Ringers and Spider would attest to. And that’s just his later period.

A History of Violence may not be up there with such works but it remains a very good if overly safe film. The trailer basically tells you everything you need to know about the plot: a small town diner owner named Tom Stahl kills two robbers/psychos in self-defense as they invade his business, attracting the unwanted attention of mysterious big city gangster looking types who claim he’s a Philadelphia murderer named “Joey”. Everything from there unfolds in a rather predictable, if entertaining way and you can probably guess what’ll happen along the way. On the other hand, Cronenberg proves to be a quality action director and he infuses the film with a kinetic energy that really should have been explored more in depth: seeing Viggo Mortensen massacre gangsters with lightening quick speed is fun the first time but the character’s mighty good at it and the fights thus get repetitive. If Aragorn were that fast, that 12 hour Lord of the Rings series would have been lasted about 5 minutes. Speaking of which, Howard Shore’s scores are now beginning to blend together in a Hobbit inspired monotony which is disappointing considering he’s always given Cronenberg his best, most innovative work. Still, minor complaints aside the film looks and sounds great and fans of the gangster genre will have nothing to complain about. Personally I kept waiting for gangsters to turn into zombies, or aliens, or Tom Stahl to grow an extra appendage but that was my desire for Cronenberg style weirdness and the film didn’t really need that. I just kind of wish it went there anyways because that’s the element that can throw a Cronenberg film over the top into “awesome” territory.

While the film’s narrative is somewhat predictable, the thematic execution is extremely well done as Cronenberg continues to infuse his work with a depth not found in most films considered “accessible”. Tom Stahl’s nature is explored not only through the violence of combat but also 2 very graphic sex scenes, the first of which prompted many giggles from the audience due to its in your face quality: good thing they never saw his earlier work… The second is a rape scene which contrasts Stahl’s hidden nature and makes the dark one that much more important as the once blushing crowd stared in horror. If the violence in this film is quick and brutal, the sex is something to be lingered on, to the point of either giggles…or absolute discomfort from the audience. The idea of an animal nature is also explored in the film through Stahl’s son. A total wimp in highschool, willing to back down from anything even at the expense of his pride; he one day shows a berserker rage that would make his father proud (or angry) except…he never knew his father had that in him. Is violence a part of America? A family? Humanity? Canada? Cronenberg will let you figure that one out yourself, but by simply asking the question in such a subtle way it adds layers of depth to the film which ultimately save it from simply being average.

Ultimately, this won’t be remembered as one of Cronenberg’s greatest achievements but it’s a good, short entertaining film that’s easy to like though hard to remember. One of the funnier things that struck me is that the film’s plot bears more than a passing similarity to Tarantino’s Kill Bill series minus the post-modern wackiness. Even the (ultra cool) poster features gangsters lining up like the massacre in El-Paso. Now what if Bill didn’t find the bride until years later and she DID adapt and become “normal”; would she still be the crazed killer we see in that film? A History of Violence asks this very question and adds: what if the bride was the guy from Lord of the Rings and the hobbit town was filled with regular folk? Somewhat derivative, but fun nonetheless.

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