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.