the film as a whole is about how the family only
becomes 'real' once violence comes into
David Cronenberg interviewed in 'Time Out'
real..." 'Real' has always been a contentious word
when it's movies you're talking about but then is what you
feel inside a cinema dwarfed by an engrossing movie real
in any way? Can a two mile plastic 'someone else's' light
dream invoke real feelings? Hell, yeah! You should have
seen my face when John Hurt gave birth in Alien... I may not have been in fear of my life (like the rest of
the characters) but the emotion of fear was real. I think.
We cry in cinemas. Real tears? Our palms sweat. Real sweat
to be sure. But is the experience valid in the sense of
a 'real' experience? Not to cheapen the word in any way
but Cronenberg's A History Of Violence is the real thing.
movies just stick in your craw in the best possible way.
I came out of A History of Violence seriously
jolted and with an even more profound respect for David
Cronenberg than I previously had. He also has great hair
but (I believe) this is not relevant. That's a whole mess
of respect. I was in the hands of a 'real' film-maker, a
storyteller who knew exactly how to communicate, through
his work, the vagaries of the human condition which blossom
in hostility. And like all good movies, A History
Of Violence allows you to burrow through its subtext
and metaphor for weeks afterwards.
men amble out of a motel. The heat and insect drone is oppressive.
Their dialogue is banal and interspersed with complaints
about the weather. The older man grumbles about their lack
of water for an upcoming car journey and the younger man
goes back into the motel to fill up. It's all shot in one
long, indolent take. I can't say why, but my attention was
well and truly held, gripped you might say, hemmed in by
the sounds and images of this amazing piece of direction.
The mood felt wrong, ominous, discordant. Of course, you
do not attend a screening of a film with the word 'violence'
in the title and look forward to gingham dressed children
singing about their love for their grandparents. That's
real horror. I knew these guys were no good. They were cold
on a canvas of searing heat. They were born without the
ability to care.
first cut finally arrives (we are now inside the motel)
and Howard Shore (the composer, a long way from Middle Earth)
is starting to hint to us that things are most definitely
not right. The younger man passes by the check in desk,
where sprawled and bloodied sits victim number one. The
victim's wife lies at his feet in a pool of blood. It's
horrific carnage and not any different to what any other
movie may offer up as an image of murderous mayhem but having
the scene presented in this way with that terrifically stifling
build up, makes it somehow more real. There's that word
again. These men are sociopathic, a fancy word which means
they have no empathy or regard for others and therefore
are able to kill without remorse or compunction. As the
younger killer's filling the water container, the murdered
couple's sobbing daughter steps into the lobby. A gun is
released from a waistband...
isn't the shock, almost comic squib slap of the little girl
who wanted a vanilla twist in Assault
on Precinct 13. You don't see the
girl die. Cronenberg uses a shock cut to get the point across.
These acts are not action movie set ups, people dying –
to be avenged by the hero in the final reel. They have been
presented to show the banal nature of the sociopathic killer.
They kill. That's that. Shore's bleak score almost soothes
us because it reminds us that it's still only a movie despite
the darkness and metallic loneliness of his Silence
of the Lambs-like underscore. I wondered about
Cronenberg's musical intentions here, feeling that no music
would have been more appropriate but Shore's score is dark
and cold enough to only add more horror not dilute its 'reality'.
We know these guys now. Bad to the bone...
cut from the murdered girl features another girl screaming
after having had a nightmare. Sarah Stall (played by Heidi
Hayes) is the only weak acting link in the film (she pronounces
every word distinctly and only actory kids do that, not
real ones) but this is a minor quibble. Everyone else delivers
stand out performances. The Stall family is a very happy
family. They are happy in that 'even the teenage son comes
to comfort the little girl' type of happy. It's very sweet
(hah!) and utterly – some may say coldly – designed to have
the impending horror car crash into them twice as hard.
It's the American dream – the family, the town, the
job, the serenity. She's a lovely Mom (Maria Bello), he's
a lovely Dad (Viggo 'Aragorn' Mortensen). These are simple
folk who run a diner in town. In anyone else's hands, these
moments and full blown scenes of contentment would grate
and become archly dull all too fast. But because we are
so wired from that extraordinary opening, we are thankful
for the respite. Cronenberg lets his characters take their
time (how refreshing is that?). If someone gets in a car
we see him fully get in it and drive off. It is the cinema
of thought. Moments that would send Michael Bay scuttling
to his razor tool in the edit suite, are kept intact and
they are all the more powerful for it.
lets his movie breathe and thereby allows him to ratchet
up the tension and suspense. We are looking into actors'
faces not at them. The big difference is there is so much
more going on when you're given a chance to look behind
the eyes. We know our lovely family has a date with the
sociopaths. We know that this violence will change everything.
I was reminded of Dennis Potter's Brimstone and
Treacle in which a girl in a coma is brought out
of that coma by being raped. The Stalls (subtext much with
the name choosing?) are in a coma, a soft space of domestic
tranquillity. The family is about to be collectively wrenched
from their cushions and then once wrenched, like a snapped
ligament, they will never be able to regain what was lost.
have not been held so firmly in place watching scenes that
out of context would be simply banal. Context changes everything
and Cronenberg knows this. So while we while away the Stalls'
bliss we are slowly getting the family under our protective
wings. There will be tears before bedtime. There will be
blood on the moon. All I knew about the movie was that Tom
Stall (Mortensen) does something heroic which turns out
to be the metaphorical equivalent of your dad lifting up
a rock on the beach to find all sorts of life scuttling
away, exposed to the harsh light of day. I guess I was waiting
for this event so the movie could extrapolate from it. In
the meanwhile, Stall's son Jack (Ashton Holmes) is being
bullied big time. Cronenberg plays cleverly with audience
expectation here. How extraordinarily satisfying it is,
seeing the bullied best the bully. It's just as satisfying
here except we are invited to find this violence abhorrent
however 'justified' it is in narrative terms. It's an act
his father can't condone but the son gets a slap for his
troubles. He truly is his father's son but no one knows
that yet. The normal family's life is slowly beginning to
Stall (Maria Bello) decides to treat her husband to a fantasy
– an illicit, sexual treat by having both parties pretend
they are both teenagers again – having sex in her
parents' spare room. Dressed as a cheerleader (go, that
American dream!), she jumps her man (who quizzically asks
what this other woman has done with his wife, a question
wrapped up in a few dozen irony jiffy bags) and the following
scene is adult and almost coy despite how intimate it is.
Each loses bits of significant clothing as they writhe into
a sixty-nine but what's so refreshing about the best sex
scene since Don't Look Now is that it's still to come (so
to speak). This coupling and the gentle nature of it is
intended as the yin to a future scene's yang. We'll get
to the yang in a moment.
sociopaths arrive in town and their malevolence drips off
them like oil. The first to recognise this is the school
bully who gives them the finger after a driving incident.
The finger lowers and the face says it all. He knows these
men are capable of, for want of a better word, 'evil'. They
enter the cosy world of Tom Stall's diner (Tom is closing
up) but they get their coffee. Sexy Beast played very interesting games with the politics and practicalities
of intimidation and here we see the US equivalent. These
men are soiled with amorality and director Cronenberg is
about to step over a very fine line. Can a movie about violence
show violence in a glorified Hollywood way and still ask
us to be sickened by it? I'm unsure what Cronenberg's big
theme is (see the opening quote for the general theme) because
I'm not sure what is real in his own context. The point
I'm making is that the violence in the diner is very slick,
sharply cut and owes its affect to the editing. It's more Bourne Identity in style than 'real' in
any sense but Mortensen is credible. And that's crucial.
We get a nasty cutaway (this is what a man looks like after
he's been shot in the head) and I'm happy to say there were
groans of disgust from the audience I watched it with. So
there should be.
injured Tom goes back to his life but now he's a hero. That's
not good news for someone who genuinely wants to remain
anonymous. Suffice to say, his own history of violence comes
back to haunt him (Ed Harris plays the principal memory
jogger, eerily creepy as a one-eyed mobster). Always throughout
this exact and bold movie, you are left with wondering how
the family are going to deal with the consequences of their
and others' actions. That's the key. You care enough to
invest in them. When Tom needs to scourge all his demons,
he does it in a Hollywood way but because the film has taken
you this far, you tend to go that far with him.
spoilers ahead – you have been warned
a cathartically violent confrontation with those who sought
to drag Tom back to a past he thought he'd exorcised, things
in the Stall family are not as they were. The sexually frisky
cheerleader is now an ambivalent wife with a husband whose
past now defines him. She is scared and unsure. She has
an altercation with him as she climbs the stairs and this
violent encounter that culminates in full, passionate sex
(on the stairs, ouch) is amazing in all sorts of ways. She
has instigated it and it is she who rejects him after his
climax. The most important part of the scene is we clearly
see her pulling Tom towards her. Violence, sex, desire,
repugnance, regret, need, affection. Cronenberg can cover
all that on the stairs!
(pushed by outside circumstance) does what a man has to
do. Returning to his family, he is accepted and/or rejected
but the final cut (a cut to black) is most telling and by
far the most interesting cut of the film. His life is worth
living based on the decision made in that black space –
ultimately in our minds. A History Of Violence is an adult film about adult issues and themes. It is directed
with great and quiet skill and performed so honestly, you
feel you've actually met these people. It's going to camped
out in my cerebellum for a few months yet...