'History Of Violence' A Quiet Cronenberg Smackdown; 'MirrorMask' Shines, By Kurt Loder

Why do we keep fighting? Who called in the giant eyeball spiders?

"A History of Violence": The Torture Never Stops

This is a strange David Cronenberg movie, and not in the usual audaciously morbid way. This one is based on a graphic novel ("A History of Violence," by John Wagner and the artist Vince Locke) that's considerably more gruesome than the film. Is our guy going soft? Not exactly. Working with a stripped-down script by Josh Olson that refocuses the story, Cronenberg has made a brooding, contemplative picture that's tough, tight and masterfully controlled. With the tone of the movie locked down almost to a whisper, the carefully considered eruptions of brutality leap out and hit us like a rock in the face — just like actual, real-life violence.

A low-key, murmuring Viggo Mortenson stars as Tom Stall, the bland proprietor of a small-town diner, whose stereotypically placid life revolves around his smart, sensuous wife, Edie (Maria Bello), and their two kids, teenaged Jack (Ashton Holmes, seeming not at all like a first-time screen actor) and grade-schooler Sarah (Heidi Hayes). As the movie opens, in a sequence that recalls the off-hand horror of John McNaughton's 1986 "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer," we see a pair of vicious drifters making their way toward Tom's town with a stick-up on their minds. When they sleaze into the diner, clearly looking for trouble, Tom offers to hand over the contents of his cash register. But these two lowlifes have more murderous things in mind, and Tom, getting the picture, suddenly leaps into action with savage expertise. The townspeople are both elated and startled — they'd never have guessed their gentle neighbor had it in him to deal with such an ugly situation.

Tom's heroic exploit makes the local news and spreads across the country as a small-town human-interest story — much to Tom's dismay. Soon a more businesslike group of ominous characters arrives at his diner. Their leader, Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris), a black-suited creep with a maimed face that looks like it was worked over with a putty knife, claims to know Tom, and is disquietingly glad to see him. Carl calls him Joey. Tom has no idea what Carl is talking about, or so he says. Carl and his thugs leave the diner, but they don't leave town; and when they show up later at Tom's house, confronting him across an impossibly green lawn under an overbearingly blue sky, Tom is forced to take action again, this time even more expertly.

By now, Edie is convinced something's up — that maybe Tom isn't really the man she thought she knew. Cronenberg has earlier demonstrated the lovingly carnal character of their marriage in a strikingly graphic scene of erotic role-playing. Now, as Edie's suspicion of Tom grows stronger, we witness another of their sexual encounters, this one almost an assault. Meanwhile, Jack is being tormented by an increasingly menacing school bully. Newly initiated into the ways of extreme retaliation, he lashes out in a spasm of preemptive action that presumably resolves the situation. In the end, Tom, with his carefully cultivated life collapsing around him, must make a long journey to confront a top mobster, a breezily unhinged psychopath named Richie (played with enormous glee by an almost unrecognizable William Hurt). Here, things get really nasty.

The movie is of course a survey of the varieties of human mayhem. There's the self-defensive violence of Tom's showdown with Carl and his goons — an in-bred reflex. There's Jack's explosive response to the school bully — violence not in reaction to aggression, but to the perceived threat of it. There's violence as a form of sexual desperation, and — most frightening of all— there's the random, merciless, unmotivated violence of the two drifters who set the story in motion.

Is violence ever justified? If so, when, and why? Cronenberg might almost be in a rush to let us start pondering these questions. The movie, based as it is on a truncated extrapolation of the original narrative in the book, is only 98 minutes long, and it comes to an abrupt conclusion that may seem jarring. (This would depend on whether you enjoy the exercise of imagining your own resolution to a story, or whether you think that's the director's job.) The picture slaps us around with cool efficiency, though. Cronenberg works with a savage expertise that's all his own.

"MirrorMask": Worlds in Collision

This one-of-a-kind fantasy film may be seen as a classic someday, possibly quite soon. A first-time cinematic collaboration between the extravagantly imaginative writer Neil Gaiman and the artist-director David McKean (both are intensely revered in the comic-book subculture for their work on the esteemed "Sandman" series, among many other things), the movie has a flickery, handmade quality that recalls such primordial entertainments as George Méliès' 1902 "A Trip to the Moon," and an unrelenting otherworldliness that's indebted to more modern films, like the late Jim Henson's 1986 "Labyrinth." ("MirrorMask" was in fact produced by the puppet masters of the Jim Henson Company.) The main characters are played by live actors, but they're set down into computerized dreamscapes of a very special sort — raw and unpolished, and crawling with strangeness.

The story, appropriately, has the timeless structure of legend. A 15-year-old English girl named Helena (Stephanie Leonidas, who has the slightly bruised beauty of a young Nastassja Kinski) is weary of life in her parents' small, shabby traveling circus. She longs to be normal, or at least to be elsewhere. Her wish is suddenly granted when she slips into a bizarre anti-universe, where schools of fish swim through the air, spiders with big eyeball bodies clack around in the streets, weird music that sounds like beetles being crushed underfoot fills the air, and a huge, menacing black cloud blows in from time to time to blot out the sky. This anti-land is ruled by a dark queen who resembles Helena's mother, in an inside-out sort of way, and there's an anti-Helena, too, a grumpy girl who yearns to make an escape of her own — from this place. Both Helenas need something called a "mirrormask" to effect their getaways, and finding it turns out to be an even more surreal process than you might imagine.

"MirrorMask" is a fascinating piece of work. If it fails to be entirely enchanting, that's possibly because it takes its time getting underway, and because the real-world segments are shot in flat, drab daylight — and mainly because of the dauntingly meager $4-million budget that Gaiman and McKean had to work with. That artists working at this level of creativity should be handicapped by under-funding may be the most fantastic thing about this whole project.

—Kurt Loder

Check out everything we've got on "A History of Violence" and "MirrorMask."

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