Sunday, June 11, 2006

Cronenberg's A History of Violence - 6/11

It's been an odd week around here. Last Monday I started a new position at work, one that has me moving from 9 years of 3rd shift to normal, human daytime hours. It's also odd moving from the solitary existence of an overnight engineer to the social pool of an office job. To prepare for the new shift last weekend, I stayed up 30+ hours in order to reset the internal odometer. The two day weekend was spent with a pronounced feeling of jet lag.

But now, all is well and good. And to celebrate this return to normalcy, we had the crew over for another Saturday Night Freak Show. Oblisk the Tormentor brought over Corona burgers for the grill, Satanica and I provided the beer brats and Cajun sausage, while Trixie Blowpop had the fantastic idea of making root beer floats for dessert. There's supposed to be a Dog n' Suds drive in reopening in the area this summer, and I can't wait.

For the past couple of weeks I've been attaching a short film to the start of the main feature (in addition to trailers for upcoming Freak Shows). Of course, I've forgotten to write these up before now. Basically, I'm going through the series of BMW's awesome 5 minute mini-movies/car commercials starring Clive Owen as "The Driver". The first, Ambush, was directed by John Frankenheimer. This week's was from Ang Lee, called Chosen. In it, the Driver is charged with transporting a Nepalese child to a monestary in New York and slickly evades pursuers in well choreographed chase scenes that play out like automobile ballet. Where Frankenheimer pared his spot down to the bone for his master class on movie car chases, Lee opts for humor and a sense of sophistication. Owen should have been a shoe-in for Bond.

There was some discussion after our main feature, A History of Violence, as to whether this film constitutes David Cronenberg selling out in hopes of finding mainstream acceptance. Personally, I don't believe so as the story (based on a graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke) deals with the same themes and obsessions that have fueled Cronenberg's work for three decades. The director has made a career out of films about dual personalities and the metamorphosis in between. Only usually the Cronenbergian protagonist finds himself becoming someone else by accident - here, Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) has done it on purpose... and before the movie begins.

In a small American town (where the single yellow stripe in the middle of the road betrays as a Canadian location), the Stalls live a picturesque existence. There is a scene early on that brings all members of the family into the room of little Sarah Stall (Heidi Hayes) after she has a bad dream. Tom is laconic and soft spoken. Eldest son Jack (Ashton Holmes) is the sensitive-intellectual type who breaches social strata when he draws the ire of the school's alpha-jock during a softball match. Wife Edie (Maria Bello) is the type of woman not adverse to dressing up in a cheerleader outfit to add spice to the bedroom. This represents Cronenberg's idyllic vision of the American nuclear family. But, like another David -- Lynch -- he is more interested in the dark undercurrents that run beneath the surface.

One night a pair of ruthless killers walk into the Stall's diner and threaten the customers with death. This triggers an explosive reprisal from Tom, who manages to wrest a handgun from one of the asssassins and kills them both.

His act of violence elevates him to the position of local celebrity, with news programs pointing out that Tom is a "real American hero". The press coverage attracts the attention of Carl Fogerty (Ed Harris), a mobster out of Pittsburg who believes that Tom is actually "crazy Joey Cusack" from Philly.

The resulting tensions put strain on the Stall family household, and more shocking violence erupts and buried truths come to light. One of the best scenes in the movie has Tom confronting Jack at a moment that displays the father's horror that his propensity for violence may have been passed down to his son.

Performances are aces all around. Bello delivers another fearless, bold performance cementing her status as one of the best female actors working today. Mortensen wisely decides to underplay his role, where simple gestures and facial movements speak volumes about his character's mind. The two share a sex scene early on which was considered shocking for its frank depiction of normal marital bedroom activity. And William Hurt shows up in a 10 minute appearance, as the lord of Philadelphia's underworld, that earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

This is certainly the most accessible of Cronenberg's films, a measured, mature examination of the violent impulses that lurk just beneath the surface of the human animal. By setting his story in small town USA (Cronenberg himself is Canadian), it could be reasoned that the director is making a judgement on a distinctly American style of violence, the media's fascination with killers, and the effects of a violent history from one generation to the next. This is a very good film.

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