Wednesday, April 26, 2006

#1 (Film in Review 2005)

Whenever I take in David Cronenberg's A History of Violence (#1), I am struck by the fact that I am really watching three very different films at once. On the most basic level, it's a strudy mobster revenge flick, with loopy twists and turns abound. The second reading is, of course, Cronenberg's dissertation on violence, which explores impositions against the body and mind in the family, at the workplace, on the schoolground and even how it manifests in sex. But then I also see a complexly self-conscious film, where the construction of these dilemmas are so utterly transparent. It is almost as if you can sense the director standing just inches off-frame, winking and pointing at the flimsiness of the facade, even before it is (literally) blown wide open by the arrival of those nasty bad men. This has been understood as a failing of the film for many of its critics and those in-between, yet I would argue that Cronenberg is very much aware of the obviousness of his machinations. Sequences with, say, the space-cadet daughter ("I had a nightmare about monsters") or the oh-so-bullying bully have been mocked for their "cheesiness". Yet the film is primarily interested in taking the icons of the American dream - cereal, baseball, the diner, the dutiful sheriff, heterosexual scripts - and completely turning them on their head. Cronenberg is not a fool, people - he's totally in control, every step of the way.

Another prominent criticism levelled against the film is that Cronenberg lacks much else to say beyond repeating scenes of brutality over and over again without purpose. Again, it is key to accept that he is not making any definitive statements about violence - he does observe how it pervades all these areas of one's life (moreso than one would think), how it has the potential to completely solidify (!) or annihilate human relationships. What I think is so impressive about Cronenberg's work is that he takes a solid yet unexceptional screenplay, and infuses it with such sly commentary and... Cronenbergian-ness (can I use that?). Of course, he is not alone in achieving brilliance - I have applauded the performances all season long, and I am not nearly finished. Consider Maria Bello, who fleshes out Edie Stahl beyond supportive-wife shlock and into another realm altogether (ferocious warrior). Recall William Hurt's off-the-wall, super-risky cameo, which just affirms Cronenberg's playful approach to this material (which is ripe with potential for comedy). Personally, these are the elements that make A History of Violence so appealing, so fucking brilliant and so much fun. It's a high-wire act with so much to dissect, savor and poke at - of all the films released this year, this is far and away the one that will keep me busy for years.


JavierAG said...

Ali! No, just... no. Really. If Cronenberg is in total control as you say, why do the final scenes with William Hurt seem stilted and out of place? (not that there's anything wrong with Hurt's performance; rather, I blame the director for not building up to what should have been there all along).

There are a lot of things I love about this movie - Mortensen and Bello may just be the best actors in their categories this year. And I love (or hate?) the way Cronenberg catches us gleefully *enjoying* the violence, taking sides with a so-called hero that is hardly better than the stereotypical "villain". I also think the way in which the movie comes full circle is outright brilliant.

But then I take a look at the banality of some scenes, completely lacking in irony, sarcasm or plain good ol drama, that merely reads as poor filmmaking to my eyes. It's as if Cronenberg was playing David Lynch here, and he hadn't got the mood or the style to back up his story.

But I admit to being torn - I gave it an A- the first time I saw it, aware of some "issues" but not being able to pick them up appropriately, and then going all the way down to B- on a 2nd viewing. I should really watch it again, but right now, I feel the merits of this picture are extremely mixed.

In any case, thank you for a great list, and some really cool choices I'll be checking out as they get here.

Ali said...

I don't know how to justify Cronenberg's methods if they feel stilted and out of place to you, Javier. One man's treasure is another man's trash (or... whatever, you know what I mean). My view is that the loopiness (or what seems jarring to you) is utterly intentional on David's part, once again fucking around with stereotypes and conventions of the mobster/mafia image (in regards to the third act). Like I said, the self-consciousness is potentially off-putting to many.

Ditto for your problems with the "banality" of many scenes, apparently missing all those elements you cited. I don't really see how Cronenberg is playing at being Lynch here; this isn't deconstructing suburbia a la Blue Velvet. Perhaps what you perceive as a lack of style or moodiness is what I see as a deliberate attempt to throw the viewer off-guard. I love how the film veers violently (excuse the pun) from one tonality to another, hitting at different registers constantly.

From the gleeful, almost hilarious sequences where Viggo's smashing people's faces into bits and pieces, to those devastating moments where you're winded from the implications (closing shot), I relish every (seemingly inconsistent?) frame. I don't know if that makes much sense, but it's the closest I can come to articulating what I see as the film's genius.

I suppose it's a King Kong situation (isn't ironic that we're uneasy about each other's #1s?); just as you love Jackson's film in spite (or even because) of its flaws, I embrace A History of Violence because of... well, not its flaws (wrong word). Maybe because of the way it is so divisive, that what others see as flimsy or laughable, I see as masterful.

Kamikaze Camel said...

"It's as if Cronenberg was playing David Lynch here, and he hadn't got the mood or the style to back up his story."

That's sorta exactly what I wrote in my review. It felt like Cronenberg was trying to follow the same path as David Lynch but Blue Velvet is 20 years old and the whole "what hides behind the white picket fence" mentality officially got old right after American Beauty 6 years ago.

For me, like Javier, it has gone down. I think it's still a B+ for me but not as high of a B+. It's not longer in my Top 10 unfortunately.

I think, again like Javier, that while Cronenberg has many things he's saying that there are plenty of bits that aren't saying anything.

Although I do think the cheesy moments you mentioned are there on purpose because Cronenberg is all about horror films and what says "1970s and 1980s exploitation horror films" that bad stilted acting and excessive violence.

I enjoyed his interpretation of exploitation horror films but the whole "what makes a man is violence" is a LAME message. Straw Dogs did it worst though. God, that movie was shocking.

Great list though! Mine will be starting next week.

JavierAG said...

Well, "Blue Velvet" dealt with issues of violence using quite a different approach. I suppose what bugs me about this movie (History), is that Cronenberg doesn't seem to be using any approach at all, but seems happy with going all over the place. Take the scene in the car (well, one of those anyway) in which Tom and Edie sort of just look at each other and talk, and there's this lousy (happy? heroic??) music in the background, and you're left with "Oh, look how happy and perfect they are together. Too bad it's just a facade".

Because the opening scene makes it clear that the "perfection" of the following scenes IS inevitably a lie, Cronenberg expects all these kinds of responses to back up his images. But isn't this a little too facile an approach?

That's obviously not a real question because I know how you will respond, and I know you wouldn't say "no" to that unless you had strong commentary to back it up (which you do). I guess instead of *feeling* (which brings us back to the "King Kong" situation) it's about *not feeling* this time. There are times when I'm just not feeling anything in this movie, and I sense I'm supposed to tie all up intellectually (sp?), rather than emotionally. And I've never been very good at following movies that way.

I don't know if this storyline got a bit too old like Glenn says (a LOT of people would seem to disagree), but I'm not convinced that this movie has any genuine emotional pull to it. It's kinda programmed.

Well I hope I'm not being too annoying here, or seeming as if I want to bash your favorite pick of the year, because I'm really not. I wanted to understand what greatness you see in this movie, and you've made your point very clear I think, so I'm just about happy for the time being until I see this movie for a 3rd time (I feel I need to).

Anonymous said...

This film taught me the lesson of how subjective film criticism really is. I mean, A History of Violence is a film to which I reacted with a solid "meh!" while others, like yourself, call it "fucking brilliant." I don't see the brilliance; nor do I see this "control" as a sign of brilliance. But if others do, I just thought..well, okay. Awesome. The New World blew my mind while it bored others, and it doesn't mean I'm right and they're wrong, or vice versa. That is the sole reason why I value this film, and I actually enjoy reading others' opinions on it and raves about it as it encourages my consideration of films I may have otherwise tossed aside immediately after viewing it and being entirely unimpressed. I loved your review on it, by the way. It helped me understand a few things. Except...

...please elaborate further on William Hurt. I did not by any means hate this movie, except for William Hurt. I loathed him. I thought he cheapened the film, and I even thought the comedy was out of place in a film that you correctly say has much potential for comedy every once and a while.