A History of Violence - David Cronenberg USA 2005 - Viggo Mortensen
I think that David Cronenberg’s (DC) movie demonstrates – QED – the bankruptcy of the mainstream forms of Hollywood film making. A History of Violence is built around a back story that has been used many times before. It’s the story of the man -Tom - with the past - when he was called Joe - which comes back to haunt him. The film proceeds to fill out the machinations of the plot line with a series of graphically violent encounters as the protagonist Tom struggles to square his present reality with Joe, himself of yesteryear. It’s not that either the idea or the story do not have interesting possibilities. Rather it’s the way the film is structured round a series of violent set pieces that reduces the movie to the level of yet another parody. A History of Violence is tricked out with a stylistic hyper real look with regular measured doses of sex and violence and has made box office. But it is evidential testimony for the proposition that film based on narrative action image is now running on empty and that any attempt to make such films that do anything other than pander to the debased currency of entertainment is either the result of dishonesty or self deception.
The film is built up on a skeletal framework of five epically composed episodes of extreme violence connected by the narrative of the suburban man whose past is provoked into finding him. This key idea is a Jackle and Hyde schizo story in reverse, with suburbia as a drug induced state of catatonia, that is only relieved by engaging in acts of violence. Violence is the antidote that overcomes censorious inertia. Violence is a suppressed mode of behaviour that stems from a state of mind characteristic of earlier consciousness. America realised as a prepubescent repressive culture.
To highlight the shizo awakening DC employs his usual hyer-real stylised mis-en-scene. The film looks like its shot on HD with separation of foreground and backgrounds suggesting dis-association. This effect is reinforced by the set construction and of wide angle lens all working effect sense of distortion and proportion. Complementing the settings the action adopts a highly stylised and graphically expressed representations of violence. But for violence to work in this situation at any level beyond that of fantasy entertainment, the violence has to have some moral basis that grounds it within the fabric of the film. But moral basis there is not.
In the violence DC renders in all the usual vivid heightened details such as: a knife driven right through a hand, a neck crushed under the heel of a shoe so that the jugular blood shoots out, brains slurping out of a shot blasted skull. The overall effect is parody but even on its own terms within the movie the parody does not maintain a consistent moral line. This is evidenced in the first sequence of the film which shows the aftermath of the violent murderous robbery of a small motel by psychopathic killers. Before the leaving the scene of the crime one of the hoods is surprised by a little girl. The hood and the girl look at each other: we see the hood takes his gun aim and fire it from point blank range at the little girl. Cut. We do not see the little girl. Unlike the other scenes of violence we do not see what the bullet from this gun does to her body: DC cuts and switches the action. DC might say that he is working with a convention in which only ‘the badies’ get hurt. But in which case why have the little girl in the script? It is a moral failing that defines and typifies the film. Graphic violence is central to A History of Violence: it is the very premise of its structure. Throughout the film our retinas gaze on images of blood mangled flesh and crumpled bodies. Yet the most ‘shocking’ violence in the film is omitted. DC pulls away from it. He suddenly becomes reticent and shy as if he cannot allow himself to admit the full force of his own filmic logic. The scene is suppressed; perhaps even unshot. DC in making A History of Violence is caught up in the schizo contradictions of the culture as much as his subjects. Lacking any moral stature the film becomes just another exercise in style another vacuous violent exploitation flic. Empty parody without substance without life. A film for the dead like the zombie gangsters that inhabit its frames, but collapsed and without meaning.
The last shots of the Stall family having diner together is perhaps the low point of the film. This sequence, in which wife and son know the truth about Tom/Joe is shot without dialogue. We see the whole family eating around the table and cut to a series of close ups in which the faces reflect a sort of gross disturbance. DC seems to say that the horror of the knowing of truth has permeated their bodies their spirit, and results in the affect of this realisation streaming out of their sensory expressive organs. The visual effect acheived by DC is as if the actors are pissing with their faces, or about to be sick. As a coda it is at least in tune with the rest of the film: an overblown stylised affectation.