Yes, it's a David Cronenberg film, but moviegoers might be surprised to learn that there's nothing overtly creepy about "A History of Violence." There are no highly emotive, man-sized bugs. No Ethernet ports located in our protagonists' spines. No orgasmic typewriters. Apart from a few graphic scenes, "Violence" is pretty calm. Instead, it's the film's ideas that get to you.
"It's disturbing because you can relate," the film's star, Viggo Mortensen said. "The first few minutes, you're like, 'OK, what's happening here? Do I like this? Is this good? It's Cronenberg, so it's going to be interesting, at least.' But then you forget. You just become absorbed by the story, and you say, 'Hmmm,' and you walk a little closer. But once you get too close, you're like, 'Oh, my god!' You're part of [Mortensen's character, Tom Stall], and you're part of his story."
"A History of Violence," like the graphic novel by John Wagner upon which it's based, takes a look at life in a small Midwestern town, where things seem simple and people seem, for the most part, salt-of-the-earth good. Mortensen's Stall leads a quiet life running a diner — quiet, that is, until two men with guns show up and try to rob the place. Armed with only a coffeepot, Stall dispatches them without much difficulty, to the surprise and relief of his customers. He's heralded as a hero by the community, and then the media. Pretty soon, after seeing the news, more men come to Tom's diner — and insist on calling him by another name: Crazy Joey Cusack. Seems the mobster they work for has a score to settle with Crazy Joey, but Tom says they've got the wrong man. The more they insist that they don't have the wrong man, the more Tom's wife, kids and the local lawman start to wonder: Just who is this man they thought they knew?
That the film focuses on this question of selfhood, and less on the story's seemingly inherent violence, might well surprise Cronenberg fans, who by now have come to expect (and revel in) the strange and occasionally repellant psychosexual underpinnings of his films. Those who have closely followed the director's four-decade career aren't used to this kind of family-affair dissection in his work. Has he lost his touch?
"There's no 'Cronenberg touch' in this movie whatsoever," Cronenberg said with a laugh. "I must say, people think I have a checklist: body portholes, identity and this and that, and if I get five out of seven, I'll do the project. But I actually don't have a checklist! If you think of 'The Dead Zone,' that was based on a bestselling book by Stephen King, and that's pretty mainstream."
"When you say mainstream, that usually implies mediocre," Mortensen said. "And this is not mediocre. There's probably a good chance that it could be the most widely seen of any of his movies, but he's still peeling the layers away, looking at how weird we are, looking at how strangely we look at the world, looking at how prickly we can be, looking at how paranoid we can be."
Cronenberg wouldn't normally shy away from violence, or sex — he put an entirely new spin on autoerotism in 1996's controversial "Crash," and addressed the not-very-cuddly topic of snuff films in 1983's prescient sci-fi dystopia, "Videodrome," with Deborah Harry), and he certainly doesn't do so here. But he tones it down — in a way.
"The graphic novel is much more violent," Cronenberg said, referring to a scene not to be found in the film where Tom's childhood friend is tortured over a period of years and turned into a grotesque amputee. Instead, the film's fight scenes are quite quick, the punches effective — and immediately devastating. But it's the emotion behind the brawls that matters. For instance, Tom's son, Jack (Ashton Holmes) tries to avoid the school bully, only to finally beat him at his own game — and then gets suspended for his troubles. Tom tries to tell Jack not to rely on violence to solve his problems; but how can his son listen to that advice after what he's seen his father is capable of?
And the sex? Well, that can be violent, too. Two sex scenes between Tom and his wife, Edie (Maria Bello), bookend the film, in a sense, and reveal more clearly than anything that words might convey how the two relate before and after the mobsters' revelations. One scene is a sweet role-playing romp, while the other is so aggressive that it verges on rape, as Edie grows more fascinated by her own fear (and excitement) in the presence of this man she might not really know at all.
"Sexuality is so much less provocative than everyone makes it out to be," said Bello. "What's really underneath it? That's what [the story] is about."
The cast was directed not to check into the plot of Wagner's graphic novel prior to filming, but it seems someone forgot to tell Viggo. ("I must have not been listening that day," he said with a laugh.)
"It's got the same structure [as the film], in some sense," Mortensen said, "but the twists and turns David came up with are quite different. It's a more subtle and more layered look at human behavior, not just a pulp fiction tale."
Perhaps that's why one of the biggest laughs of the film (yes, there are laughs) comes when Edie confronts Tom about the life he has always told her he led. Unable to confront the bigger picture of what she thought her marriage was, and what it's turned out to be," Edie asks in shock, "So you've never lived in Portland?"
"I don't think I've made a movie that isn't funny, on one level or another, despite having other things going on at the same time," Cronenberg said, "and this is no exception. I do ask the audience to take some twists and turns with me in terms of tone, because there's a moment that's funny that immediately turns into something emotionally devastating. Movies these days tend to be pretty clumpy; here's the sad scene with the sad music and the sad everything, and now we go to the reconciliation. Cue the happy music! That's not asking for much from the audience. And that's not the way anyone's day goes."
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