The gorehounds I went with to A History of Violence were disappointed. Not violent enough. David Cronenberg directs a graphic novel adaptation, and the most the film comes up with in the splatter field was a face torn apart by shotgun blast -- the fellas wanted gross-outs, only to get the most limpid, rigorous examination of cinema's (and audience's) relationship to brutality this side of Peckinpah. Too much hamburger to enjoy caviar and all that, yet far be it from me to exclude myself from the folks sitting in the dark, being played like a piano by Cronenberg's ruthless button-pusher: I cheered, only to be promptly reminded of the consequences of the actions I was cheering, and laughed, the better to have the laugh rattle around and die seconds later. A great director questions, analyzes, enlarges -- violence here is horrifying and funny, inescapable and tragic, and A History of Violence hits the varying tones and sides while providing the director with the challenge of keeping his patented squishiness roped somewhere out of the frame. Cronenberg's most depersonalized, mainstream work? The horrors here are no less bodily than in Videodrome or The Fly, yet distilled and stretched over the skin of a "realistic" morality play; the subversive artist pierces through the skin, imperceptibly, and brilliantly contaminates the body.
Impeccable formal control to match audacity is mandatory, and Cronenberg provides it, from the beginning -- the long-take scrolls left to follow a pair of hardened drifters (Stephen McHattie, Greg Bryk) outside a motel, unnatural buzzing interrupted by the car radio, until the camera follows one of them into an office to survey the carnage inside the building. A child gets shot, then a cut to another screaming in the safety of the hero's home, though the two worlds are already braided. Viggo Mortensen is the Mr. Perfect, sturdy, fist-chinned and, by now, after Lord of the Rings, iconically heroic, taking it easy in a Midwestern town with wife (Maria Bello) and kids (Ashton Holmes, Heidi Hayes). The airbrushed perfection of family life is as exaggerated as the killers' vileness, for Cronenberg, like Lynch, can't help envision idealized happiness as cruelly impossible, and, furthermore, undesirable if scrubbed off the various distortions of human life. Mortensen is all-granite made wobbly, literally, thanks to the knife stab to the foot that he gets when the two hoods invade his diner -- just a scratch compared to what McHattie and Bryk get for their trouble, blood splattered over pie and coffee. Henry Fonda becomes a well-oiled killing-machine for a few moments, cold and efficient, and fame spreads for the freshly hailed "hero." Along with tabloid reporters come three "Bad Men" from Philadelphia, black cars and suits and shades, led by dead-eyed Ed Harris, dropping hints of a bloody past around the superhero's clan.
The History of the title, then, is not one of violence throughout the ages, but of the violence in a man's (or is it Man's?) past, present and, maybe, future. Harris and goons insist they know Mortensen from back in the East, under a different name, and proceed to terrorize home and family. Cronenberg's template is the security-under-siege genre of Desperate Hours and Cape Fear, the original '50s-early '60s pressure-cookers, filled with reactionary reinforcement of society by depicting every outside force as evil, rather than the questioning remakes by Cimino and Scorsese. Smalltown wholesomeness is unreal, darkness shot in grotesquely sunlit America by the Canadian director, prone to eruptions -- a nose smashed to pulp, blood oozing from a head wound. Superboy Holmes endures locker room razzing until he explodes and dispatches two bullies to the hospital, yet some of the most visceral moments come from the sex scene between Mortensen and Bello midway through the plot, following the husband's hospital homecoming and the unveiling of his past as mob assassin: a scuffle segueing into ferocious kissing and panties-ripping, then two bodies slamming into each other within the cramped spaces of a staircase, a transfusion of aggression, neither of them now really sure of who this man is.
The bruising tryst, in keeping with the film's doubling structure (past versus present, reality versus fantasy, contained tension versus splayed physicality), is a cracked-mirror version of the couple's early, joyous coupling, but even then Bello's cheerleader outfit hints at the inherent role-playing that clouds the truth of a relationship, and of life. That the inner beast awakes to protect the innocent may draw audiences' applause, but Cronenberg dissects viewers' reactions by refusing to tidy up the bloodletting even when it is "justified." A moral tract, then, yet far from black & white, Holmes riled by jocks, describing violence as "cruel and pointless" while the medium aestheticizes it into pulpy excitement, self-policing images and catharsis. Straw Dogs territory, though Cronenberg is a far more intellectual surgeon than Peckinpah the Barbarian, and the rite of masculine purging is less celebratory, more ambiguous -- Mortensen's night car ride to Philly is no less a journey through a conscience than the raindrops hitting Marion's windshield in her Psycho trip, although the monster here is no Mother but Brother, William Hurt's subtly wacky James Gandolfini send-up in a palatial rendezvous. Blood, then purification by the river and a place at the dinner table, but violence is part of the world, and the family is part of the world. Acknowledging that is the beginning of history.
The metaphorical killing of the father for identity and independence -- on paper a thesis as provocative as Cronenberg's subversion of the revenge melodrama, only this is Proof, John Madden directing Gwyneth Paltrow for fall-time Miramax Oscar tinsel. Paltrow, sullen and wan, plays the daughter of Chicago mathematics wizard Anthony Hopkins, from whom she's inherited both genius and instability-leading-to-insanity; Jake Gyllenhaal, one of the adoring students, goes through Hopkins' notebooks after he dies to seek morsels of lucidity amid all the rambling, until Paltrow eventually shows him a jaw-dropper of a proof on prime numbers. Could the daughter have come up with it, as she says, or is she just trying to steal daddy's thunder? Her sister (played by Hope Davis, Paltrow's grittier, indie-film blonde sibling) flies in from New York to attempt to convert Paltrow to no-frills yuppiedom, but who's got the beautiful mind? Rarefied tastefulness really is not for the movies, though ideal for a dull stage transplantation (the Broadway hit is David Alburn's Pulitzer prize winner), its two auteurs of troubled womanhood (Paltrow and co-writer Rebecca Miller) giving way to Madden's bland hand, unimaginative down to the schematic laying of shots. Timid staging + faithful adaptation = no cinema.
Reviewed October 6, 2005.