Wednesday, October 05, 2005

REVIEW: A History of Violence

Warning: Spoilers herein, see the movie first, etc.

In my schoolboy days I was once told a parable the intended meaning behind which eludes me to this day. The story was about a king who is informed that a marvelous beast called The Elephant had been seen in his kingdom, leading him to dispatch his three chief advisors who were all wise but also all blind to find The Elephant and report back on exactly what it was. Coming upon The Elephant, one advisor inspected the creature's nose, the second it's legs, the third it's side. Upon recieving the report, the king is dismayed when the first advisor insists that The Elephant is a tremendous serpent... but the second contradicts him by claiming it is a group of living tree stumps while the third is quite sure that it is a giant wall that breathes.

Yes, it's an odd one. But I think the moral is that we're supposed to see things for ourselves rather than rely on advisors who may not know of what they speak. Me, I'm stuck on how fascinatingly dense the advisor characters are: each one so instantly confident of their own interpretations that they don't bother to inspect any farther up, down or across The Elephant. Which brings me to the critical press and a good swath of it's reaction to David Cronenberg's "A History of Violence."

Apparently, at some point in between the announcement that David Cronenberg would direct this (loose) adaptation of the graphic novel a little over a year ago and it's actual premiere this past weekend, something like half the world's film critics arrived at the conclusion that this was going to be a Message Movie. A Message Movie About The Evils Of The American Gun Culture, specifically. The math seems to work like this: Cronenberg is an important filmmaker. Important filmmakers make important films. Important films, lately, translates to Message Movies. Message Movies about guns, lately, are against them. Therefore, the film MUST BE an important message movie against gun violence.

The math is wrong.

Whether or not "A History of Violence" has been concocted to carry a message remains unsaid to my knowledge, but no message-mongering has wound up onscreen in any significant way. Yes, it's certainly possible for those wishing to do so to see certain aspects of the film as validation of their own belief that there is no "good" violence. But it's equally possible to see it as a more morally-gray twist on the "Death Wish" ethos, while many more will simply see it as a heartland-vs.-gangland reworking of the "outlaw-turned-homestead-defendin'-family-man" Western tradition. In other words, what you take out of the film will depend on what you bring in. Though naturally I'd reccomend you inspect the whole Elephant before you decide it's a serpent.

Our story: Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) is living La Vida Capra in a Rockwellian midwest hamlet with his beautiful wife (Maria Bello,) two great kids and fulfilling job as owner/operator of the local diner. One night, a pair of psychotic murderers on a killing spree make a pit stop in his diner and begin assaulting the patrons... and Tom stops them. Stops them dead. With the proficiency of the Clerics from "Equilibrium."

The media hails him as an American Hero, but Tom just wants to get back to routine... and then disfigured philadelphia gangster Fogarty (Ed Harris) turns up in town with a story to tell: He thinks Tom Stall looks a lot like Joey Cusack, a mob-connected killing machine who's been missing for... about as long as anyone has known Tom Stall.

So there it is: The small town husband and father celebrated for his crimestopping skills may only possess such skills because he's really a professional killer for the mob. It's easy to see how simple it would be for the film to turn into a polemic about the American romanticism of gunplay at this point, setting up pro-NRA "nuts" and "conservative" news types to celebrate Tom and have their positions "put to lie" by Fogarty's revelations.

The message would be loud, blunt and unmistakable: Gunplay and the cowboy-mystique are bad, violence only begets more violence, and "heroes" who use violence are just as bad as those they fight. It'd be an easy path to take, and might even make a decent movie.

But "A History of Violence" never goes that route. It moves directly from Tom's sudden act of heroism to Fogarty's dark insinuations and then tips it's true hat: It's a character piece. The film may spark a political discussion, and such may have occured to the filmmakers or actors, but it's never the focal point of the film. It's chief interest, to the exclusion of nearly all else, is in placing these characters in a morally-unsure, perception-altering place and then observing how they react.

Even the initial obvious question, "is he or is he NOT actually Joey Cusack?," becomes of secondary importance to the larger issue: What do these questions and their answers (whatever they may be) do to his family, his friends, his town and his relationships with all of them? To this end, Cronenberg is merciless: There's dark places for character exploration of this nature to go, and he goes there.

Which also applies to the titular violence. Though not as extreme as much of his prior work, (the film departs significantly from the more Gran Guignol apsects of the novel, particularly in the third act,) the director's eye for fetishistic bloodletting finds it's targets where it can. And so too his penchant for frankly-presented sexuality, using a pair of sex scenes between Mortensen and Bello to graphically illustrate the tectonic shift in their relationship.

The actors are, across the board, in fine form. Mortensen, finally getting his due as an actor of note following his starmaking turn in the "Lord of The Rings" cycle, (has any other-major film of recent been so startlingly proficient at turning lesser-known and unknown character actors into name stars?,) proves a master of layered characterization. Ed Harris rediscovers the particular brand of menace that made him such a sought-after commodity for so long. William Hurt turns up playing way against type to great effect. And this is probably the first time I can say I've genuinely liked Maria Bello in a movie.

Running underneath the whole film is an insidiously subtle score from Howard Shore, which glides back and forth between idyllic pastoral comfort music and deep, dark beats which appropriately suggest a sweeping action score peaking out through the pinholes.

This is one for the best of the year list. Don't believe the various hypes about too much/not enough violence, message-mongering or slowness: Get to the theater and see this movie.