Sunday, October 16, 2005

Now Playing. No, Seriously.

Lately the Siren sees new movies about once every vernal equinox. Thanks to Girish's enthusiasm, Thursday night the Siren hired a babysitter and saw A History of Violence. So here is a rare post about a movie that is still in theaters. If you haven't seen it, the Siren recommends that you do. Even if you dislike the movie, it is a major work by a serious filmmaker and deserves to be loathed on a big screen.

I did like it, however, liked it a lot, and not just for the many wonderful camera angles you get on Viggo Mortenson. The plot can be sussed from the trailers: Nice guy named Tom (Viggo), living in small farm town with lovely wife (Maria Bello) and two kids, saves some folks from a couple of vicious criminals. He becomes a hero, gets his face splashed all over the media. Suddenly, some seriously frightening underworld figures show up (including Ed Harris, terrific as always) and begin to menace him. Are they figures from Tom's past, or he is the victim of mistaken identity?

You can see this film as a straight genre flick, but the Siren thinks you will be disappointed if you do. The IMDB chat boards are full of people who went expecting a well-constructed thriller, and left wanting to wring the neck of Roger Ebert, Kenneth Turan and every other critic that gave the movie a good review. They say they have seen much better, and in terms of thrillers maybe they have.

The Siren does not have much patience for those complaining about the violence. It's David Cronenberg, folks, and he was thoughtful enough to keep the title of the graphic novel the script is based on. He didn't change it to "Fluffy Bunny Ears" and then spring a couple of cross-country serial killers on you. Complaints about the pace puzzled the Siren too. The movie lasts 98 minutes and tells its story with great clarity. Not every thriller has to have a thumping, propulsive, MTV-Cuisinart-editing style.

Other complaints are accurate, so far as they go. There are some cliches and fallacies that pop up, like the Talking Killer, the Seriously Wounded Guy Still Able to Take Out Lots of Scary Dudes, and the Point Blank Shots That Miss. The characters are sharply drawn and extremely well played, but they are mostly archetypes familiar from dozens of other movies: the smart and still sexy wife, the nerdy picked-on son, the bullying jock, the china-doll daughter, the villain who is still royally pissed off about his disfigured face.

The Siren, however, thinks the seeming infelicities are deliberate. The familiar set-ups and characters give a feeling of timelessness and myth. The bizarre humor that some complain about keeps you off-balance. You're shown something horrifying, but it's so deliberately incongruous that the audience giggles. Someone takes an absurd line and gives it a serious reading--not the wink-wink deadpan of Leslie Nielsen, but the grim earnestness of a social worker on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.

Some call the violence very true to life. A few close-ups would fit nicely in a forensics textbook. But the Siren thinks an early sex scene, with some awkward, on-and-off role-playing and an unlovely rendition of soixante-neuf, is probably the most "realistic" sequence in the movie. The violence, on the other hand, comes in manic bursts. And as Girish notes, each confrontation evokes a different audience reaction, from pity to anger to horror to, more than once, total disbelief.

So why subvert your own material this way? In this case, if realism is being stretched and slapped around and sometimes flat-out ignored, it's because you're being invited--hell, you're being pushed--to take a look at everything the story implies.

I want to discuss those implications, but I can't do that without bringing in some plot points. So if you haven't seen the movie, STOP RIGHT NOW, don't spoil it for yourself.

If you're still here, I am going to assume that either you saw it, or are one of those people who peeks ahead in a mystery novel because suspense is an overrated narrative device.

It is pretty obvious from the get-go that Tom is not the purely perfect father figure he seems to be. The amazing efficiency with which he dispatches those criminals tips you off, for one thing. Tom Stall, the salt-of-earth diner proprietor, is the new identity of Joey Cusack, a mobster whose mania for bloodshed went too far even for the underworld when he took out Ed Harris' eye with barbed wire. (You are never told what prompted that, and it's implied that Joey might have done it for any old reason at all.) Joey hid away for three years in some sort of desert purgatory, eventually got a new identity, and wound up in Millbrook, Indiana, with a perfect blonde wife and two kids and a house with a front porch and a mailbox that jauntily proclaims "The Stalls."

So that first encounter in the diner, as Tom dispatches two psychopaths, doesn't draw an essential stalwart and upstanding guy into a situation he would never have chosen. It unleashes a carefully nurtured but long-suppressed ability to kill, fast and efficiently.

Remind you of anyone? anywhere? The Siren thinks it should.

Fundamental to most Americans' perception of themselves is the story we tell about our peacefulness and amiability. Historians may demur, but our movies tell us that we don't go around seeking out fights, no sir. From Shane to Sergeant York to even The Godfather, we see hero after hero who, whatever his past, would be pursuing a peaceful life of farming or turkey-hunting or fooling around with Diane Keaton, were it not for the corrupt and heinous outside world picking a fight with him. But once somebody picks a fight, by golly, the hero's gonna finish it--and so is this country.

Of course, this vision of America, where we are never the aggressor, is a polite, elaborate and ahistorical lie, one that continues right up through our latest exercise in selective umbrage-taking. A History of Violence says we're frauds, and the Siren can't help wondering if some people have a very hard time with that. Cronenberg looks not merely at violence itself, nor even at what prompts it, but at what we must tell ourselves in order to preserve our self-image. "When you dream, do you dream you're Joey?" Ed Harris asks Viggo.

Maybe he does, maybe he doesn't. Not many of us dream of Sand Creek. Our country was founded on violence, it is our original sin and in our DNA. Bloodshed is always there under the surface, as is in Tom.

And violence perpetuates itself, as we see Tom's son able to beat someone nearly senseless, and as one war begets another on our evening news. But Cronenberg is no moralist, and he's willing to acknowledge the Darwinian advantages of being able to kill when necessary. As Roger Ebert pointed out, if Tom/Joey were really the nice guy he seemed to be, he would have died right there on the restaurant floor. The violence is what enables him to survive.

In the end, Joey returns to his family table, and in the silent, tentative offer of food and truce you see the possibility of reconciliation. Joey yearns to go back to Tom, his family wants to let him come back. But looking at the last shots of his wife's haunted face, the Siren wondered how another cherished American ideal--starting over--was going to work out this time.


girish said...

The Siren is such fun to read.
And I'm flattered that I might have been responsible in some small way for her rare public appearance at the cineplex.

Diane said...

Darling, I'm so happy to hear that you enjoyed this movie, as I am that rare appreciator of Cronenberg. He is a serious director with a clear eye and vision, a rarity in the sea of forgettable figures who never forget their training in commercials.

I listened to an NPR interview of him a little while back and he exhibited real pride in this film.

I have not seen this film, thus stopped when instructed to do so. I will definitely watch this asap, however, so that I can finish your wonderful article.

Campaspe said...

Girish: I should get out more. There are other movies coming up that I want to see, and a busy season at the Cinematheque. I did manage to see Broken Flowers but never wrote up my notes about it ... I didn't have to much to add to others' impressions but there were a few things to say, I suppose.

Happy birthday, Diane darling! I am not a huge Cronenberg fan, not because I dislike his movies but just because I usually don't connect with them. He has never, but never, bored me. This film was really something, I will be eager to hear what you think of it.

girish said...

"The Siren, however, thinks the seeming infelicities are deliberate. The familiar set-ups and characters give a feeling of timelessness and myth."

Wiser words were not spoken.
I think this line of yours is key to shaking out of the literalist/realist mindset which too many people seem to have (misguidedly) brought to this movie...

katiedid said...

First of all, I have learned something today. I had to look up what the hell "soixante-neuf" meant. That is one awesomely classy way to say something wonderfully dirty. Thank you.

Second, great movie review. Really really great. I do like Cronenberg's work in general, because there's always something vaguely haunting and disturbing about all of them. I even watched his Naked Lunch, which at least achieved a degree of interest from me that the book could not (overrated piece in my estimation.) And I know I am in the minority, but I found his Existenz strangely compelling - it's a modern
Grimm's fairy tale. Gruesome, fantastical, visceral.

So I guess I need to see this, obviously. I would rather see an interesting movie with flaws than a perfectly bland one, that's for sure.

PS - "deserves to be loathed on a big screen" is an inspired turn of phrase.

Dan Jardine said...

Excellent review. I am convinced that the final shot of the film is as far from happy familial rapprochement as George Bush is from Noam Chomsky. There's no way "Tom" can return to the same home he left. It is the daughter, the only one who has been shielded (in one scene, quite literally) from the truth about her father, who sets the table for his return. The earlier violence of the second sex scene, the bitterness that passes for conversation between father and son, and the final look on Bello's face tells us where this will end, and it won't be *69.

Campaspe said...

Thanks so much guys, I am glad you enjoyed the review. There are certain movies where you just feel a need to pour out thoughts right away. Usually, it's the really really good ones (although occasionally a movie is so bad your rising indignation requires immediate writing as well).

Patrick said...

Dan - remember, his son also passed him some dish (mashed potatoes?), so at the least the two children were welcoming him home. I think there was going to be a reconciliation. About the movie, I liked it, I think some claims are being made for it in some reviews about things that just aren't in the movie, but it was ok. (I also think Cronenberg is probably pretty much a weirdo)

Dan Jardine said...

Yes, I remember the potato passing moment, but I also remember the son screaming at the father in several previous scenes. There remains considerable tension at the end of this film, and I just don't see this as a sunny resolution, and such a reading would be pretty much antithetical to Cronenberg's overall ouevre.

Patrick said...

Just the usual teenage angst....

WinterWheat said...

Wine 'em, dine 'em, soixante-neuf 'em.

I left the movie shaken, mainly because of the second sex scene. The rape myth is alive and well in American cinema. For the last time, people, women do NOT get turned on by attempted strangulation. *shakes head*

Tania said...

Late to the party as always. I just saw this film last night. And I wanted to say that I don't think we should consider the ending as reconciliation/happy vs. non-reconciliation/unhappy. It is entirely possible, and I think probable, that we see a reconciliation in the ending -- but it doesn't have to be happily ever after, and it certainly doesn't mean a return to the same condition of cheerful marital bliss in which they started. In fact, a reconciliation is probably a more nightmarish ending than a breakup. Especially if you consider that Joey doesn't look like he's ever going away for good.

As for the second sex scene, I was shocked, but not because it was perpetuating a myth that rape is enjoyable, but because it was so honestly horrible and you can see her hatred and fear along with the love of him she hasn't let go of, and you can see his desperation and the sickness of what's become of him now that the violence in him is taking over. I can hardly imagine what it's like to act out a scene like that. It's the kind of thing that makes me glad I gave up acting.