Toronto Film Festival--"A History Of Violence"
Some movies, great though they might be, begin to recede in your memory in the days and weeks after you’ve seen them. Others inexplicably gain in strength and resonance, burrowing deep into your brain. This is definitely happening to me with David Cronenberg’s amazing new film, A History Of Violence.
Where to begin? There is a multitude of reasons why this movie is fascinating; here are just a few:
Personally, I have never liked the idea of art movies confined to their own little ghetto, cherished and admired by an elitist and incestuous cinephile community. A History Of Violence is that rare thing: a brilliant, canny hybrid of mainstream film and art film.
Another pet idea of mine: It’s exciting when art, like a subversive, saboteur virus, steals out of its ghetto and roams the world outside, infiltrating popular forms and making mainstream audiences stop and think every once in a while, “Wait a second, there's something funny going on here…”. If the mall crowd that goes to see A History Of Violence perceives it as nothing more than just a mainstream Hollywood thriller, the world will be no worse off. But, if the complexity of the film appeals to their intelligence and stops them short for just a single moment of self-inquiry, Cronenberg will have achieved his objective. And this is a prospect that thrills me.
One of the great things about this film is its tone — pure and steady and distanced and cool. The tone of a filmmaker often betrays his or her attitude toward the material by tipping it in a particular direction — think of the dark surrealism of David Lynch or the faint cynicism in some of the Coens’ movies. The miracle of Cronenberg’s uninflected tone is that it doesn’t cue us which way to go.
Like great pop music, this is a gloriously accessible film. But accessible as what? And to whom? These are the questions that Cronenberg poses to the audience.
For a movie with a sweeping, taxonomic title, very little of the screen time is spent on violence. Like every other thing in this film, the staging of the violence is downright brilliant. It occurs in brief staccato spasms, and is over in a flash, the way it is in real life. What really interests Cronenberg here is life lived before and after those acts of violence.
The violence struck me, by turns, as: horrifying, justified, tragic, cathartic, even occasionally comic-macabre. Cronenberg appears to be saying: Violence is a complex idea, and to do justice to it, you need to realize that it can provoke complex reactions from us when we witness it.
The movie implicates its audience, making it complicit.
The violence is shot intimately, in close-up. It’s not stylized or aestheticized or extended as in Sam Peckinpah or John Woo. Instead, it’s clinical and documentary.
Yes, the movie works powerfully as an allegory of post-9/11 America. This one aspect alone would make even lesser movies automatically interesting.
Cronenberg deadpans: “I think A History Of Violence can be seen as a red-state movie in a red state and a blue-state movie in a blue state.”
All my serious talk gives no clue about how darn funny this movie is. Its bone-dry absurdist wit would simply collapse into trivial hip irony in the hands of a lesser filmmaker. “I can’t believe you didn’t grow up in Portland,” says a character in the film’s funniest line. (Here is a sign of the movie’s sophistication: I would be at a hopeless loss to explain to you why this line is so funny. You’re just going to have to see it.)
I have already gone on too long. I just glanced at my yellow pad and realized that I’ve only touched on about half of my bullets. Here are some of the unfired ones: Rorschach; perversely idealized small town life; revenge western; body horror; graphic novel; two sex scenes, one a cheerleader fantasy and the other right out of J.G. Ballard; role playing; Millbrook, Indiana is actually Millbrook, Ontario; Norman Rockwell; and Robert Bresson.
Here’s what this long-winded post is trying to say: see the movie, will ya? And let’s talk about it in the comments section, okay?