RIORI Vol 3, Installment 75: David Cronenberg’s “A History Of Violence” (2005)



The Players…

Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, Ed Harris, Peter McNeill and (eventually) William Hurt, with Ashton Holmes, Greg Bryk, Heidi Hayes and Stephen McHattie.


The Story…

Dateline: Middle America. A lot can happen in the middle of nowhere.

Tom is a humble businessman and decent family guy. Runs the local diner in his simple, small town. He’s got a sweet wife and a pair of weisenheimer kids to keep him on his toes. A well-respected member of the community. And isn’t that usually how it all starts?

After thwarting a robbery at his diner—with uncharacteristic, ninja-like precision—Tom becomes a media sensation. How does a lowly hash-slinger bring down a pair of nasty crooks on the run with their own weapons and a well-placed carafe of the daily brew? It’s a good question.

Pointed even, since when Tom’s rescue gets filters through the national networks curious folks from out of town seek him out. Serious folks. One might regard them as…not nice.

Namely, such gentle thugs didn’t drive cross-country for Tom’s revered cuppa joe and a slice of pie.

They’d rather have a slice of him.


 The Rant…

This has happened here at RIORI before, when I’m not sure how to kick things off. But after watching barely the first act of A History Of Violence, something stirred my curiosity.

*pats comfy, leather couch*

Let’s sit, talk. Brandy might be served later if you’re nice.

I touched upon this matter years back in my typical byzantine way when I covered the film adaptation of Bryan O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim vs The World graphic novel series. Despite the movie being helmed by the darling director Edgar Wright I hated the thing. Found it stupid. Any postmodern pop-culture disections were lost on me. Now I ain’t dumb, but maybe Wright’s intentions were made to make me feel that way. Heck, this is more or less a left-handed apology to a respected friend who loved the thing. Sorry there, Fish. Ships in the night and all.

Pilgrim was based on a graphic novel series. Not comic book, BTW. For some odd reason both media are cut from a different cloth sewn to the same cape. I have watched an ample amount of comic book adaptations here, almost required by law to feature a superhero’s antics (e.g.: Spider-Man 3, Green Lantern, Superman Returns, Man Of Steel, Iron Man 2, etc). Also have seen quite a few graphic novel takes to boot (e.g.: Watchmen, From Hell, Cowboys And Aliens, the aforementioned Scott Pilgrim, the forthcoming V For Vendetta [mark your calendars!]) including today’s steak on the grill. Now it may be the medium, but despite which aisle of Wegman’s you’re snooping, films based on comic books tend to be action-packed and lighthearted in the endgame. Movies lifted from graphic novels tend to be more, well, graphic. Heavy drama, sex and shooting, navel gazing the human condition. Stuff like that. Despite one medium ain’t far removed from the other side of the coin—the content may be similar, if only ratcheted up to 11 on the novel end—when it comes to making the pluck into film what’s with the odd balance of power? Why are comic book flicks up and graphic novel flicks down? Why, I ask you, why?

I know. Such a question ain’t really that important so long as the film adapt stayed faithful to the spirit of the book if disregarding the letter. About half of the comic/graphic movies seen here at RIORI earned a “rent it” (an aside: this being the 21st Century, and Blockbuster has been shaken to dust, I’m kinda finding it silly to call our little cinematic whistle-stop RENT IT Or Relent It. But STREAM IT Or Relent It doesn’t really have the same cachet, does it?). That being said, it’s most likely the subject matter that cuts the mustard and not the source material’s format. One would think.

*tumblin’ tumbleweeds*

Okay, confession time. The above jazz has precious little to do with this week’s flick. Very little. We’re talking trace elements here. So why’d I bring it up? Let’s call it snacking on some crow, and we’ll reserve the bones for stock later.

If you may recall a century ago I covered the aforementioned Edgar Wright’s take on Scott Pilgrim vs The World. I did not like it, and wasted no blood shaking it down for its lunch money. Not long after the posting a long distance friend of mine complained about my complaints. He though the movie was great and a very faithful adaption to the spirit of the comic, if not the letter. Well, I often respect the guy and heard him out. His argument was valid, and gave me enough pause to consider Pilgrim again. Not reconsider it, mind you but hear my friend’s measured words.

In hindsight, Pilgrim was a good movie, and its interpretation of the graphic novels did it honor. Am I saying I like it now? Nope. Just really wasn’t for me. Sometimes that happens: a decent film gets in my crosshairs and I have a hard time hitting the broad side of a barn. At high noon. With a sniper rifle. That and with the Pilgrim movie, director Edgar Wright and his style kinda chafes me. Kinda. The man’s talented, obviously, but akin to my Tarantino autopsy with the Seven Psychopaths installment Wright like Tarantino might be too clever for his own good. Namely, the two directors are wunderkinds and particularly adept at going for the jugular, tempered by what their shrewd, pop culture-saturated muse whisper—scream, rather—in their heads, tempered with honey. Buckwheat honey. The bittersweet stuff.

Some directors are calculating, if only under the skin. Folks like Tarantino, Wright, Scorsese, Kurosawa, Nolan, Kubrick and Hitchcock got the gears a-turning when it comes to getting their sh*t in the can. Their work can get a bit esoteric, but there’s always a well-drawn blueprint to their work. I ain’t talking style, not exactly. I’m talking execution. In short, c’mon, 2001: A Space Odyessy was not some lark. Wonderous to be sure, but not off the cuff (Christ me even writing that makes me smell the fecal matter rising). You get the drift.

Then there’s the flipside: directors whose work is a bit looser, more organic. Following the senses. Those guys behind the lens are myriad, and their muses alternate on being on an opiate or a few shots of Jager, chased with a pan of brownies (and not the magic kind, either). Their films follow some sort of emotional straight line, and despite how pro their films come across there is the barest scintilla of either winging it, dropping everything to go where their senses tell them to go, and even despite the toughness of their plots there’s sometime a ragged glory humor just below the surface.

No shock here, but I be talking about the likes of Crowe, Zemekis, Burton, Miyazaki, Capra…

…And David Cronenberg.

A-ha! Point en route! Thanks for your patience, and I’m talking to me.

Now there’s a director who follows his senses. Organic like peat moss. His muse reeks of absinthe and pancakes, and what she tells him to is akin to like making gumbo: yeah, throw that in. No one saw it hit the floor. Cronenberg’s final products are twisted, scary, gross and so wonderfully violent your very soul needs a shower after watching one of his works. That’s a complement, BTW.

What I always dug about the man’s films was their acorn. You know, which may grow into the mighty oak? Yeah, only his glen is populated by some stunted growth. Short bus bonsai. His stuff is like xenogenesis; the offspring doesn’t resemble the parent. And the whacked out thing is if you chew on it, what his muse informs him (regardless and in spite of the weird sex, nasty violence and an overall “what the hell?” feeling) is, yes, personal but also prosaic.

Cronenberg has gone on record saying most of his catalog that is his fistful of acorns stemmed from pretty average, simplistic stuff. His adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dead Zone was less about sci-fi and precognition but growing old. The televised pulsing, mutant labia in Videodrome was inspired by the “off-air” TV programming he saw as a kid, like pirate radio broadcasting from out in the aether (that and as an aside he might’ve been a big Blondie fan). His puke-tastic version of The Fly was a meditation on the AIDS crisis in the mid-80s. Scanners was of shades regarding both drug abuse and the plight of Holocaust survivors. Relatively straightforward things. But get them into Cronenberg’s Cuisinart imagination, boink! And barf sometimes.

The guy excels at organic as well as weird. It’s understood he sharply executes his babies with a laser scalpel, but as for subtlety…well, there ain’t much there. Unless you scrape underneath the surface, not unlike a scratch off ticket promising big bucks on the outside but a lone dollar beneath. That’s also a complement. Keep track.

Now then.

*shakes sheets free of cracker crumbs*

This week’s shingle. We got all the poised hallmarks of a Cronenberg film. Intrigue? Check. Odd? Double check. Brick-to-the-head violence? Duh. Re-imagining themes so to properly appease/warp his muse? The Dead Zone, The Fly and the cryptic Cosmopolis (what else would you expect from a DeLillo book as movie?) are all re-interpretations. The guy is season in twisting things around to appease his demented muse covered in peat, thumbtacks and a hairshirt. The man has a gift for the emotional, but disregarding his inspirations, his movies are indeed organic. One might claim inorganic. I’m leaning that way.

So where the f*ck am I going with all this? Nowhere really, and that’s no shock. Kinda but not like Cronenberg’s output. This isn’t fanboy-ism. More of a cautionary tale. Not a warning though, either. It’s this: re-interpretations in film can be a dodgy thing. As I mentioned in the High Fidelity installment, another adaptation of book-into-film, we don’t want the director’s vision get in the way of the director’s vision. From a director who ultimately has made a career of re-interpretation films, you’re gonna get the Forrest Gump treatment regarding a box of chocolates served via rock tumbler.

You never know what your gonna get. Barring a coffee pot to the temple, Jenny…


Tom Stall (Mortensen) is the picture of quaint domesticity.

He and his wife Edie (Bello) are Town Square fixtures, proprietors of the Millbrook Diner, providing coffee and pie at friendly prices. They have a pair of great kids, reserved son Jack (Holmes) who takes after his dad. And squeaky Sarah (Hayes) who, of course, takes after mom.

Sure, there are hiccups. Jack get bullied by the resident alpha male jock Billy (Byrk) who has no toleraace for being bested on the baseball diamond. Sarah has nightmares. Apart from that, it’s life as usual in the Stall homestead in Millbrook, Indiana.

Until a pair of drifters wander into the Diner for more than just pie and a cup of joe.

Turns out these two are vicious criminals, and mince little words with Tom how they’re going to dismantle his business and friends. Faster than one could say “this will not stand” Tom dispatches these creeps with the efficiency of an assassin. He sends one to the hospital and the other to the grave. Tom saves the day, his business and his friends. For his heroics, modest Tom becomes a media sensation. The man who wouldn’t take it, fought back and triumphed.

That leaves a question hanging, though. How did Tom do all that superspy stuff? He serves pie for a living. He’s not James Bond. Even Tom can’t explain his actions away. But soon after an individual visits Millbrook to provide some some answers, whether Tom wants any or not.

Yet another day at the Diner, Tom plays host to a stranger. A haggard, eerie tough who calls himself Fogarty (Harris), and appears to know a lot about Tom and his history. More than Tom may know about himself. Or wants to.

Or should…


Scott Pilgrim vs The World this ain’t.

No surprise there, and nary a drumkit to found. However kinda tying into my weird, dodgy schpiel about graphic novels versus yadda yadda yadda is how a graphic novel feels. Sure, it’s self contained; you don’t have to wait for the fresh ish next week and “what happens next?” There’s no comic code to adhere to, so we get blood, sweat, tears and guts to relish. Sometimes we get unconventional artwork to pore over (think The Dark Knight Returns or, well, Scott Pilgrim). But the main thing I think about how graphic novels are unique in the realm of comics is how claustrophobic they can feel. It might be that self-contained thing, as well as the creators can let their id run riot, decidedly apart from mainstream books. I’m not sure, but I know that from reading Eisner’s, Miller’s and Moore’s work I don’t want to feel like someone’s looking over my shoulder reading their sh*t. Curious about Spidey’s exploits this week? Check it out. Rorschach on the prowl in the City, sniffing out conspiracy? Go away. Under the sheets with a flashlight here.

That’s the flavor of isolation I got from watching History. Granted, I never read the source material, but the film was tight, angular. Difficult to watch, and I’m not referring to the content. It was how it was packaged. There was a lot of intrigue, namely “wait a minute, what’s going on here?” There was definitely something afoot (and very odd) about how Tom thwarted the baddies; it was so sudden and left-of-center. Out of nowhere. Isolated. The hell?

Next scene.

I meant that metaphorically. Slow down. This is a Cronenberg flick; there’s always more than meets our eyes. History way be another adaptation/reinterpretation, but we’re gonna get spin. According to the director, he delved into Darwinian theories of evolution. Cronenberg surmised from this that there’s always gonna be a stronger bastard bent on wrenching power from lesser, more unfortunate f*ckers. Hmm. Sticks well to how simple Tom gradually realizes his inner power. Not sure History book writers had that in mind when pen met page, but when Cronenberg stuck his beady eye into the lens, all bets were never there.

Regardless being a maverick at spin, I did smell some more traditional filmmaking under the surface. Perhaps homage from Cronenberg, the protean. The film did have a connecting style. History kinda had an “Old West” feel. Specifically the “Man With No Name” spaghetti Eastwood oaters. Maybe too on the nose, but that’s Tom’s motivation in the proverbial nutshell, down to living in some podunk “frontier” town visited by unsavory strangers. You gotta have some anchor with a Cronenberg flick, Darwinian process or no.

That setup serves the film well. Again, an anchor. Quite useful considering how strategically sh*t goes off the rails later. But keep in mind the Old West schtick. Cronenberg has always defended his stock-in-trade demented works are based on personal, if not prosaic things. For example, his grotesque take on The Fly. It’s easy to dismiss/blame one’s impulses on some outside stimulus. The man’s fooled no one and everyone. He thrives on exaggeration and that may be his best, “modest” trademark in his work.

Huh? Watchu mean modest? There is precious little modesty in Cronenberg’s outings. When one employs rotten hot dogs and a well-placed shotgun blast to replicate a head exploding due to too much psychic intrusion the notion of being modest of craft kinda goes out the window. Yeah, I guess so, but maybe it’s all about which window.

Alright, enough anal spelunking. Cronenberg’s works are modest, reserved even. And History is no different. Going all the way back to Scanners, something’s always lurking, creeping under the floors and around the corners. The Stall’s life of quaint, small town domesticity is a ruse, to be sure, but before the diner “home invasion” scene yet after the stage setting opening sequence we get a weird, static and isolated feeling. Right, we’re establishing the stakes as setups are wont to do, but innocence is but a visage here. For all. The Stalls are classic mom and pop, yet it feels forced, like any small crack will make the dam fail. We have this creeping dread of artificiality permeating…f*cking everything. It’s claustrophobic, as a graphic novel is to be read. It’s winking melodrama. It’s a Cronenberg film; there are certain expectations. History‘s suspense doesn’t come from the impending doom, not really. It comes from that frail cardboard feeling which makes us know that all’s not well. Even before Harris shows up (and well before Hurt finally shows up) something is decidely “not right” with Tom, or Edie for that matter. The tension is like caramel, oozing and sweet. More like bittersweet really.

And the best aspect of such is our Danish Aragorn Viggo (I’m gonna address him as Viggo from here on. One, cuz I like his first name and; two, I keep misspelling his last). Like the lurking, static visage of the Stall’s small town idyll, we know even before a shot is fired or a carafe smashed that Tom is—as the British say—something else altogether. His homelife feels ill-fitting. His marriage seems too nice. His kids need to be there. And Viggo with his mile-long stare and aw-shucks self-effacing makes it all the more odd. Reserved. Modest. And of course it makes his Jason Bourne freakouts all the more harrowing.

The flipside of Viggo’s earnest performance and skilled killer in hiding—both within and without—is a distinct issue I took with History: I felt I’d seen this before. Sure, plenny’o films borrow/make a nod to previous films covering similar subject matter. It’s when the pinion upon which the whole plot spins like a warped 45 screams to my attention span that this is not a new thing. Despite all his solid fragility and earnest deception, Viggo devolves into a white picket fence Jason Bourne. Don’t get me wrong, Viggo’s Tom was engaging, but not wholly original. I mean carbon copy unoriginal. Then again, Cronenberg adaptation/reinterpreation of a graphic novel delivered with the unassuming whacked-out modesty. Christ, it can confusing talking about Cronenberg’s output. See-it-to-believe-it thing going on.

Back up. For the underinformed, the Bourne books/movies revolve around the exploits of a superspy with amnesia named Jason Bourne. Guy has no idea who his is or from whence he came, but he sure done good at hurtin’ peoples and guns are shiny. Viggo’s a lot like Bourne. A lot like Bourne. It takes longer here for our reluctant “hero” to come to terms with his history. Right, History is based on a graphic novel, and Cronenberg shoots it as such, but unless the movie script deviated way left from the written plot does everybody know something about Tom except Tom himself? I’m not saying this flaw is naked, but the whole “I’ve seen this before” feeling was both insidious and rather unfair. You’d think under Cronenberg’s lens, his keystrokes of reinterpretation, perversion and modesty (and we’re gonna ignore the source material here on out. You didn’t read it either, admit it) he would not play it so safe and in a sense squander our lead’s acting chops to be just some Bourne cypher. Viggo was still interesting though, sold his Tom well. I suppose that was enough for me not to chuck my embossed hardcover copy of Ludlum’s The Bourne Supremacy at the screen. You know, the one no one read? Including Ludlum?

Viggo’s foil, Harris’ Fogarty is also another thing entirely. Consider this: what we have here is essentially a comic book movie, and stars not one but two Oscar winners. It’s been well documented here I’ve taken the George C Scott stance about how the self-aggrandizing, back-patting nonsense detracts from just watching and simply enjoying the whole movie experience.

*squinting*

However, when a pair of prominent, award-winning actors grace a sort of nondescript comic film you gotta pay some attention. Especially when one of said actors is the well-esteemed Ed Harris. Big fan here. He’s another actor who’s always elevate a mediocre movie from a possible sewer line. Namely, not unlike my main man Sean Connery, some of Harris’ movies may suck, but he’s always good. And hell, both he and Sean made an actual good movie out of Michael Bay’s doofy The Rock. No duh thank him and aging 007.

Anyway to the meat, laid-back Harris feels more intense than Harris-Harris. His Fogarty was f*cking chilling, and the hell of that his character was so plain, so quietly assured. Sure, Fogarty looked like he took a flaming Cuisinart to the face, but it was his demeanor, like a librarian behind that face that was so unnerving. Enough to make Tom quietly doubt and shiver over this “Pete” guy he was accused of being. Harris is the merry imp, well acquainted with rules of the game and therefore adept at breaking them when necessary. He was supposed to be the heavy here, but was instead lightweight. I guess let sleeping dogs whatever.

When the final act eventually rolled around (and despite that Crononberg does indeed enjoy his weird shit) I think I figured out the straightforward muse that tugged at the man’s director chair, and it wasn’t simply Darwinism. History is all about idful catharsis. It ain’t some subtle lesson here: we are all capable of violence, pre-programmed or defensive. We all like to pretend, either literally or metaphorically as Tom does that we’re all even keeled, and attempt to create an environment that fosters that idea. Nope. Like Tom, we’re all delusional: sh*t happens, trains jump the tracks, fire, ruin and supernova may take us all. First things first, though: bare the fangs. The ones we forgot we had.

After all the folderol you may ask, “So blogger, was the movie good? And you got anymore Mallomars?”

Answer: it was okay and no (those tasty cookie mutants went off the market around a lifetime ago. I’m sad, too). Okay because of the Bourne stink, as well as the morality play I just smeared all over above. All of it was executed real good, but it also was not that original, even for the director’s style. Seemed like Cronenberg was as ever delving into the well of personal truth via mimicking a graphic novel’s take on whatever. It felt like a solid Cronenberg flick, with all earmarks unpierced, with a great cast and solid pacing. But felt like a solid Cronenberg flick, with all earmarks unpierced, with a great cast and solid pacing and the shadow of Matt Damon waiting in the wings with a clapboard at the ready.

Needed more cool hand Harris. And more stairway f*cking.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Another mild rent it (what is it, three films in a row?). A good movie, as only Cronenberg can spawn. But there was this creeping feeling of “Haven’t I seen this before?” nipping at my brain. A good time waster, but I’d rather watch his adaptation of Naked Lunch again. And I read the book prior. Movie made no sense either. Good work, Dave.


Stray Observations…

  • “There’s no such thing as monsters.” Uh-huh, right.
  • Best/worst puke take I ever saw.
  • “We never got to be teenagers together.” And best/worst subtle romance line I’ve ever heard.
  • Tom is delusional. In at least three different ways.
  • “We’re tourists.” And we are.
  • Liked the Yeungling shout-out. Reminded me of home, minus the crashing dishes.
  • “Then we deal with it.” Click.
  • There’s lots of small symbolism here.
  • “Nice gate.” …Yep.
  • That look. That gun. That is all.

Next Installment…

We’re on the case with Starsky & Hutch, their cool ass muscle car and nary a whit of irony.


 

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