RIORI Presents Installment #176: Javier Aguirresarobe & John Hillcoat’s “The Road” (2009)



The Players…

Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee, with Charlize Theron, Guy Pearce, Garret Dillahunt, Micheal K Philips, Molly Parker and Robert Duvall.


The Basics…

A planetwide catastrophe has destroyed Earth’s ecosystem, and like the ancient dinosaurs humanity is gradually circling into extinction.

Fate means nothing to a desperate father doing his damnedest, by wit and grit, to protect his son in the aftermath. An endgame of no food, no bullets, no shelter and cannibalism eating away at what remains, figuratively and literally.

All that really remains is the road, a way towards some nonce of civilization. Location unknown, perhaps near the coast, if there is such a haven to be found.

It doesn’t matter, reality does, to a father driven to protect his son at any cost.

It’s something to live for. If only that.


The Rant…

Well, isn’t this timely?

I read something once by my wingman Stephen King when he re-released his ur-COVID-19 epic The Stand. The novel was published anew cleaned up and uncut, resulting in an sprawling tome of Armageddon clocking in at give-or-take 1200 pages. You get your money’s worth. It’s a very cool read, and a very accurate and sobering tale about the human race—what’s left of it—trying to adapt to the fact that civilization at large is gone. Now it’s time to start from scratch. Oh, and there’s a lot of weird supernatural hokum wrapped up in the culmination of the forces of good taking a stand against the forces of evil. Hey, I told you it was a Stephen King novel. Whad’ja expect? A quilting bee/unicorn cotillion?

What I read that stuck in my craw from King’s director’s cut didn’t come from the story proper. Not some pithy meditation from the hero about survival. Not a cautionary metaphor about science run amok. Not even some religious mumbo-jumbo about the Wrath of God and why those packets of airline peanuts are so gosh darn hard to open. Nope. I read it the foreword.

We’ve either read and/or seen a lot of stories about the end of the world. Some sociopolitical like The Day After. Some nihilistic and/or existential like the Mad Max series. Some metaphorical like The War Of The Worlds, Children Of Men, Deep Impact and countless in between. Some dumb as f*ck like Armageddon. All these movies have one factor in common, and King hit on it perfectly in his novel. Well, the intro actually.

I’ve long since lost my copy of the uncut version of The Stand (chances are the thing just feel apart after too much abuse), and the author penned the phrase perfectly, but the years have worn on and dammit I can’t remember it properly. Some of you might ask, “So why don’t you go out a buy a fresh copy?” Like everything else these days, from economic ruin to dandruff, thank the coronavirus. My workplace, like many, is closed indefinitely. A fresh book would be nice. Already had enough comics, dicking around in the kitchen, laundry, YouTube feeds and working my way through the Resident Evil series on my Nintendo, Zero thru 4. Things are so scattered these days little wonder why I can’t recall the quote. Besides, my online bank account was hacked twice in one month, so the PayPal balance is zero. This happen pre-quarantine, BTW and I fixed it which I why I didn’t call you. So don’t worry yourself none.

But I’ll try my best to recall that sentiment. King commented in the intro to his massive “dark chest of wonders” that when considering a story about the end of the world that you yourself would survive. That cast of imaginary thousands you argue with in the shower? Gone. All gone. Save you. Whenever we watch The Road Warrior, On The Beach or even A Boy And His Dog in the back of our minds we scream “This could never happen! Not to me!” Welp, a nasty, highly communicable virus is—at this time of writing—stirring up the soup all pandemic-like. King is being plagued, so to speak, about the allegory of The Stand all over the Net. Something akin to “Not me!” is feeling a little Pollyanna these days, and there was no kind of procedure to fix her legs back in 1913 by way of 1960, despite what Uncle Walt wanted you to believe.

It could happen. It has happened. It is happening, but not in a Captain Trips kind of way. 99.99% of humanity will come through this pandemic unscathed, the latest iteration of Mother Nature cleaning house. “You” will survive, but here’s the hairy dilemma about end-of-the-world scenarios. Sure, you made it. Now what? Everything you knew is gone. Friends and loved ones are gone. Hell, your job and your car and your online streaming and your f*cking Nintendo Switch is offline! Again, now what? It’s to be likened to the comic book super villain who finally conquers the world. So now what? Garden? Your robot horde did scorched earth to all the crops, and you’re f*cking Nintendo Switch if offline to boot!

Seriously though, considering the apocalyptic films mentioned above, with the assuredness of survival in some form dare grants the certainty of solitude. Being all alone, separated from the things that once made you whole, rudderless and craving fellowship. Few and far between in those movies. Good motivation, makes for good tension. There’s a lot to lose in such films about losing everything. Would you want to survive, and to what end? Many storytellers, not unlike King have tackled this penultimate existential matter: where to go from here? The ultimate answer is finality: giving up, remorse, regret and death. Not a pretty picture, but it sure does make for some compelling stories.

Me? At the end of the world? I think I’d be holed up in a subterranean bunker retrofitted from an abandoned missile silo in Kansas living off Spam canned during the Truman administration and still kicking around with my Nintendo (the NES. No Wi-Fi, remember). Or just plain dead, beaten to a pulp with empty bottles of bleach by loonies upset that by finally having to accept there will not be another Avengers movie.

Fatalistic? Yes. Realistic? Maybe. It would probably be better than the alternative. Meaning aimlessly wandering towards some scintilla of lingering civilization where you can be…what? No longer alone? No longer in exile? Free craft services? Nope. Human again, which got blasted to smithereens barely days ago that feel like years. Those imaginary years take their toll, and smirking at “Not me!” is a curse and not a boast.

For a sense of finality, Samuel Delany claimed, “Apocalypse has come and gone. We’re just grubbing in the ashes.”

And what are ashes? Spent. Nature’s final regard for all things spent.

*tumbleweeds skitter across the dusky webpage*

Bleak enough for you? You drink your daily dose of Purell this morning? I opt for Metamucil myself.

Now who wants s’mores? Better yet, how ’bout an inoculation?

Slow down there. Before we get to the usual cinematic thrashing it would be remiss for me to not spout some opinions about the outbreak itself. Everyone else has. WordPress is social media after all, and what good is social media if not for smearing panic, fear mongering, disinformation and cute cat videos? Everyone has an option on the nationwide quarantine thanks to our COVID-19 party crasher. I do too, but it’s not about infection and potential death lurking on every doorknob. I’m not worried about getting infected. Not really. I’m more concerned about people’s irrational behavior surrounding the virus, and what fear and ignorance can do en masse. I’d rather be laid up in an oxygen tent in some hospital than be trampled under foot getting the last bale of Charmin, dig?

Viruses are highly communicable, but relatively easy to avoid. You catch a virus by coming into physical contact with it, namely shaking hands or being sneezed on by the infected. All viruses are transmitted via physical contact. Be it the flu, the common cold, corona and let’s not forget HIV all travel alike. Avoid sick people and keep yourself clean and you’re more or less golden. All that hand sanitizer you be laving your body in? Doesn’t work. Doesn’t do squat against viruses. Read the bottle. It says antibacterial, not antiviral. I know that sanitizer is a quick fix when you can’t properly wash your hands, but it’s hardly a substitute. In fact, too much sanitizer is bad for your skin; dries it out, kills off good bacteria you need and renders your hands more susceptible to possible infection, and viruses love a good open wound.

And those surgical masks? You’re using them wrong. Apart from the fact that the majority of said masks are manufactured in China, they are not meant for fending off viruses. Surgical masks are meant for surgery, and it might be safe to claim that those are a final precaution when a patient goes under the knife to prevent infection. You know, in case  of the sniffles or the sterile environment of an OR with all those chemicals and filters might not be enough. You’ve seen on TV some throng of Asian people going about their day wearing masks, right? They’re not afraid of getting sick. They already are sick. Coughing and sneezing on people is a keen way to spread a virus, so using a mask is not just a courtesy but also alerts others to stay back. “Hey, they have a mask on. Give them a wide berth. It’s flu season, you know.” A surgical mask with protect you from corona as well as catcher’s mask would. I saw a guy at the store the other day wearing a safety mask, the kind a carpenter would wear to avoid accidentally inhaling sawdust. Insert facepalm here (along with the other guy pushing his cart wearing woolen mittens. It was 65 degrees that day). The only benefit those masks may have is keeping your gooey fingers away from your infectious gob so you don’t accidentally wipe a booger on a sick person.

This low-level fear I can tolerate, barely. Whet gets me in a twist is hearing about how Cabela’s can’t keep ammo in stock, or morons have quit drinking Corona cerveza mas fina for reasons other than it sucks, or “religious” groups come oozing out of the sociopolitical sewer with hatespeak about (insert disenfranchised minority group here) is the cause of this plague, beating their Bibles with the Book of Revelation all gone over with a highlighter, or our Prez and his cronies really starting to feel a tad silly about certain budgetary cuts to educational and scientific resources. This isn’t The Andromeda Strain, but I’m pretty sure the CDC’s version of pre-flight instructions got lost in the shuffle.

There. Still not bleak enough? No fear, now we come to movie part. Ready?


The Story…

We have a father (Mortensen) and we have his son (Smit-McPhee) at the edge of the world. The end of the world. What life remains is hard and terrible. There is no government, no order, no medicine, no food, nowhere.

We have this fragile family shuffling down a road in search of some sanity. There’s a shortage of that also. We have roving tribes of survivors out for food, ammo, gasoline and preying on the weak and the halt. We have a father guiding his son along the ways of this ruined world, where starvation and suicide is standard operating procedure as are the lost ideals of a republic of men as only fantasy for his son in the wake of the apocalypse.

We have this bonding endure, because we all have an undying faith in when the right people come together, community may thrive.

For now, we will have to get by eating dead insects and keep on moving down the road.


The Breakdown…

Not so fast.

Watching The Road reminded me of something about directing a film. I’ve always been kinda confused about how a seamless film gets made (save editors) with two directors, like The Road did here. I’ve seen a few of these movies, and to merit they’ve all be pretty good, if not sometimes great. Wayne Wang’s collaboration with author Paul Auster with Smoke, Faxon and Rash’s The Way, Way Back, George Miller teaming up with George Ogilvie for a kinder, gentler, weirder Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome and the Wachowski Brothers’ Matrix series (well, the first one anyway). Most Disney and Pixar animations work this way as well. There are many more collaborations I haven’t seen, but they got done. How? How in synch do two filmmakers have to be in order to have a shared vision about what their final product should be? A lot of creative vibes and a lot of compromising is my guess. Probably a lot of hair pulling, too.

So how’s it get done? I stumbled onto this forum on Quora that was pretty spot on. Yes, fair compromises must be made, as well as more than a few concessions. If the directing pair have a good rapport—kind of like between the Coen Brothers—then the final product is paramount, not egos clashing. Guess overall it requires focus.

Boy howdy, co-directors Aguirresarobe and Hillcoat were very focused in constructing The Road. After watching this, I got the serious impression that they read the McCarthy novel many times, and labored over recreating the harrowing tale of survival on film. No easy task, and I never read the book, but I feel without their shared focus this movie could’ve fallen apart like a house of cards slicked with Vaseline. That falling apart feeling is the feel of the film and the feel of the direction. It’s all a good thing, to tell a story like The Road‘s.

These co-directors do. Okay, if you wanna get technical Aguirresarobe was ostensibly the cinematographer, and there is a bit of debate about his actual directorial contribution to the movie. I feel the credit is due because how crucial using landscape was in telling the story. Framing everything just right? Duh, that’s a cinematographer’s job and savvy. With The Road, the blasted landscape of scorched earth is every bit as essential to telling the story as is the story proper. The Road is a survival tale, but all that monochrome was sickening (in a good way), and who else makes sure the camera work flows seamlessly. Right. A great portion of the movie reminded me of the third act of Full Metal Jacket, what with all the burnt out buildings, smoke and scree everywhere. “I am in a world of sh*t,” Private Joker stated. If you think about it Kubrick’s Vietnam epic is a tale of survival, too. Washed out and grey makes for good grimness it appears as well as a dreadful feeling of no way out. The Road never suggests one. That’s its design.

The Road is certainly grim enough. The “post-impact” world Viggo and Kodi journey through is a washed-out, ruined ecosystem of a planet that is dying. It’s implied at the film’s outset that some natural cataclysm occurred—a massive meteor strike like the Chicxulub impact event that wiped out the dinosaurs—and the ensuing landscape the two traverse sure seems that way. Trees broken in two like matchsticks, dust storms, always cold and always in half-light. Humanity is going by way of the dinosaurs: slouching towards extinction. It’s a harrowing movie to watch—the Nick Cave/Warren Ellis soundtrack sure goes the distance—and our star Viggo is eloquent in reciting McCarthy’s story of survival and loss.

You ever see a film that starred a certain actor that no one else could’ve more ideal for the part? Al Pacino as Micheal Corleone. Judy Garland as Dorothy Gail. Heck, even Heath Ledger as the Joker? Viggo was built to play his part. Literally. According to the IMDb: “To live the role [he] would sleep in his clothes and deliberately starve himself. At one point, he was thrown out of a shop in Pittsburgh, because they thought he was a homeless man.” Truth be told, Viggo didn’t exactly starve himself. He started shooting at a base weight and just ate less and less as the filming went on. That’s dedication, and the gaunt lines and grime on his face shows it. Some ideal actors relish their roles and as the audience you could not pick a better Randall P McMurphy in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest than Jack Nicholson. Viggo looks like his role hurts, not enjoying it at all and making it look natural. That homeless man story I find curious because the cafe owner’s didn’t recognize him? I thought the Lord Of The Rings movies were big ticket, that or the man got his, pardon the pun, road work down pat.

Sorry. Moving on to the other side of the Father’s coin.

Kodi was a very good foil for Viggo. Father is all worn out, sick and still able to remember Earth as it was before the vastator arrived and ruined everything, which beyond parental obligation is something that he tries to cling to as a vestige of his humanity: the way it was. The Son was raised in this world, so abnormal has always been the norm for him. He’s always wide-eyed, questing, always seeking guidance from his Father who is all too grave to not tell his son the truth. Or what he makes it out to be. Truth is there are no rules in this trashed world, just survive. To what end is ambiguous, and the Son is constantly probing. Are they the good guys? Father isn’t so sure, but at least that notion is keeping his only child holding on. One on the ascent crossing one on the descent, and neither the twain shall meet.

If there were any messages in The Road (intentional or accidentally) they totally depended on your view of humanity at large. I’m pretty cynical, but not a pessimist. What’s the difference? Here’s where I draw the line: a pessimist thinks the world sucks. A cynic thinks the world could do better. That’s a slight message The Road might’ve been aiming at. Despite all the pervasive gloom and doom The Road traffics in there is an undeniable glimmer of hope in the ashes. That might be a ruse just to keep the tension up and be baited, but I think the palsied optimism Viggo had and Kodi was searching for allows us to keep up the chase. Perhaps it’s the relatable aspect of family. Namely, being a dad is tough. I’m one, and we’re always kinda second-class citizens to moms. Well, the mom here REDACTED in the first act, not long after REDACTED, so the Father had to fill twin roles, provider and nurturer. Viggo is clearly stressed about going it alone, but Kodi (who has more than a slight resemblance to Theron) is his mother’s child, and reminded Viggo of this with every clutching question about where to find the next meal or maybe a tank of gas for a non-existent vehicle. Viggo’s Father serves one purpose: provide, beyond the pale. By the second act I stopped taking notes and just watched. There was a lot to take in.

The Road must’ve been the most unglamorous end-of-the-world epic ever. And one of the best I’ve ever seen. Sure The Road lacks any elan of Mad Max, The Matrix or even The Day After. It needs none. It’s dismal, brusque, unassuming delivery is enough. I watched most of the film with a hand covering my mouth. Not out of getting nauseous (and there were plenty of scenes that invited that). According to the dictionary of body language “the hand covers the mouth as the brain subconsciously instructs it to try to suppress the deceitful, or in other cases unintended, words that are being said.” Namely, I did not want to believe that what The Road was informing me was correct. The film was an unfortunate and terribly realistic image about our extinction as a species yet still struggling to matter as being human. The human factor was never lost with The Road. Unlike other post-apocalyptic films, the “end of the world” is merely a backdrop to serve as a McGuffin (EG: Mad Max again, or the re-iterations of I Am Legend) to drive the story. We are in the belly of the hungry beast in The Road. Consequences are dire, life is cheap, survival is terrible and the endgame is…what? Hopelessness? Despair? A journey to the coast?

No. Retaining some sliver of the “nobility” of being human. We’re the only species (maybe barring elephants) that are aware our existence is fragile and finite. If we’re wise, we know that every moment matters. Every warm meal, every soft bed, every orgasm, handshake, favorite band, good book, memory matters. Ultimately Viggo and Kodi remind us of that for going without and within. No matter what the terrain.

Oh BTW, heaven forbid I get do sick: you were right, I was wrong, I’m outta TP and Corona is still a sh*tty beer.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Not the definitive post-apocalypse movie, but pretty close. Now go wash your hands.


The Stray Observations…

  • “Why are you taking a bath?” “I’m not…”
  • I liked the small details in the first act of things getting increasingly dire, like the stocking up of batteries and other non-perishables. Minor details that helped build tension.
  • “Two left.” Grim.
  • Literally caught with his pants down. The only vestige of humor here.
  • Piano. Out of tune.
  • “It’s foolish to ask for luxuries in times like these.” And how.
  • The weevil bit. Not that subtle, but effective for the curious.
  • “Are we still the good guys?

The Next Time…

We hit the slopes a la Meatballs at a ski lodge where the resident slashers are usually knocked Out Cold on beer, weed and dwindling lift ticket sales.

Who’s up for double diamond?


 

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.