I’m moved to write about A History of Violence after writing about Caché, because they are a pair of films with similar ideas at their centre; while Caché hits all the right marks and transcends any sort of label, A History of Violence is a gigantic miss on all fronts. A buzz went up this time last year as it premiered at Cannes, with critics hailing it as Cronenberg’s return to form after years of mediocrity. When it went on general release in the USA, the buzz became a near across-the-board celebration of what almost every critic deemed to be one of the greatest films of the year. They’re all wrong.
As I got up out of my seat and walked towards the exit after the end credits rolled, I was frowning in disgust at having wasted my time on such rubbish. (Fortunately I saw it for free, so I wasn’t out of pocket to boot.) Here is a film that (if you believe the majority of critics) promises deep intelligence and insight into our perceptions of violence as moviegoers and citizens, but delivers hackneyed themes, practically invisible character motivations, and utterly implausible plot turns. When one character, supposedly a ruthless badass, stuck his gun UNDER HIS ARM to fumble in his pocket I was ready to throw shit at the screen – in all bad movies there is a final straw, a nadir, at which point you admit to yourself, “This is an unmitigated piece of shit”, and this particular scene was it.
I digress. A History of Violence starts kind of promisingly. Two evil bastards kill the family running their hotel, including an innocent-looking child, and it is kind of chilling until we cut to Tom Stall’s (Viggo Mortensen) daughter having a nightmare and being comforted by her entire family. It’s a picture of idyllic middle America, and we know immediately that it will be shattered, suggesting rather heavy-handedly that middle America isn’t so idyllic, and harbours secrets and past that people hide. As if we didn’t know that already. The idyll is broken when the two evil bastards come into Stall’s Diner for a bit of ultra-violence, and Stall takes them out in a heart-pumping blaze of cold, calculated killing. He’s a hero, his family and town get behind him, brilliant.
Then some mysterious gangsters from Philadelphia turn up, and despite the obvious connection between them and Stall – he used to work for them, or against them, or something, who cares – the film takes plenty of time setting up another bloody confrontation. After that is done with, we descend from implausibility into farce. Many would tell me that it isn’t supposed to be realistic, it’s all theory, and what theory, but I say bollocks – I can handle things being removed from reality, but I can’t handle them if they say nothing new and, often, say things that are flat-out false.
Take the sub-plot of Stall’s son, Jack. We see him being bullied at school and not really doing anything about it, but after Dad executes two baddies and is lionized, Jack takes his revenge for all the hazing and beats his nemesis to a bloody pulp. Why? Because violence is ingrained in him, in all humans but particularly him because his father passed it on to him, and it was released by that public approval. I get it, and it isn’t particularly profound, or necessarily correct. However, it gets worse as Jack inexplicably uses violence again, this time to a much longer lasting effect. The final insult, the most incredible in a series of stupidly contrived situations, comes when Jack (out of nowhere) confronts his father, spouting some of the worst dialogue in years. The whole things smacks of pretension, of trying desperately to be profound and knowing but falling way short.
There are other scenes involving Mr. and Mrs. Stall that are ridiculous too – not so much the sex scenes, not even the rough one, but the words spoken and not spoken. They feel very much like characters in a movie, compelled to say or do one thing when logic would imply a different reaction, or to say something when nothing is said at all. Their dialogue illuminates no deeper truth; it serves only to further alienate one already pretty peeved audience member. Likewise, the villains (Ed Harris and William Hurt) are cut from the same unbelievable, clichéd cloth. Most of the actors in this film usually do good work, but they all fail in this film because the material they are given cannot be made good.
Going back to the three pivotal scenes of violence, each includes at last one image of shocking depravity – a dripping face, a missing nose – apparently (according to what I’ve been told) typical of Cronenberg. Why were these brief moments inserted? Not to titillate, I’m sure, but to stun. In the context of the rest of the film, though, they just don’t fit. They seem to have come from another film universe, maybe one of Cronenberg’s other films, intruding on this dull, improbable landscape with their brutal realism. This may be precisely the point: violence is shocking and visceral, not something that goes along with our happy ideals. However, as I say, this doesn’t fit, because the film seems to suggest that violence is innate and will happen regardless of how we otherwise behave. It’s an aesthetic decision that doesn’t work.
There are many good defences of this film out there. I suggest you find one and read one as a companion to this slab of vitriol, because while the film itself is a monumental failure, the issues it attempts to deal with are complex and fascinating, and some reviewers were able to find genuine insight in the mire. Maybe the graphic novel was way more effective (though I doubt it). I have seen five Cronenbergs (incidentally his most recent five): Spider was splendid, eXistenZ okay, M. Butterfly a disappointment given the source material, Crash poor, and this equally poor. I’m told his early work is essential, so I’ll have a look there before passing judgment. Hopefully his next project is a return to form, but with the praise for A History of Violence deafening, he’ll probably continue along the same path. Someone who knows more of the guy, have a go at me.