Monday, October 10, 2005

A History of Violence

Ever since hearing the buzz about this out of Cannes, I've been looking forward to seeing it, and thankfully, despite being an arty film, History of Violence made it out to the local cinema here, and as a result I was able to see it. The film's action genre trappings clearly helped it get more acceptance than your average Cronenberg film would, and while I don't think this movie's got blockbuster potential, it's clearly something that's accessible, yet challenging for your average viewer.

David Cronenberg's a filmmaker who seems like someone I would love. However, to date, I've only seen one of his films, Existenz, and I was not a fan. It was very gimmicky and uninvolving, and despite some good ideas, it never really gelled together. However, I do want to see some of his other stuff, like Videodrome and Naked Lunch, because he has a really good reputation. Plus, he had a great guest appearance on Alias.

Compared to Existenz and from what I know of his other work, History of Violence seems to be a departure, working outside the trappings of the horror/sci-fi genre. However, the film actually has a lot in common with what was explored in Existenz, however, here it's taken from a completely different angle.

The film starts off a bit slow, which is a neccesity for the plot, but the beginning wasn't that strong. That's one of the problems with having to set up a mundane status quo, if you spend too much time on it, it hurts the film's forward momentum, as in the wedding scene in The Deer Hunter, however, if you don't spend enough time, you get no sense of the change when the action elements emerge. So, I think this film finds a solid balance, you thoroughly understood this guy's life.

The film is interesting in the way it navigates around the generic conventions of the action film. The story at first seems to have very little in common with an action movie, and when Tom stops the diner robbery, it's a momentary blip in his normal life, not an impetus to enter a generic space. That makes the film's forward progress even more interesting. We stay in the 'normal' world of the first twenty minutes well after the first apperance of the action stuff.

I was under the impression that the film would be primarily about the effect of this diner robbery on a man's life, and had no knowledge of the whole Joey issue. I think there's plenty to explore in how this one act of violence changes the way someone perceives things, but what this film did touched on a bunch of bigger issues. I always love films that discuss identity issues, and the way in which people 'wear' false personas. Tom is a construct, entirely fictional, but for those who know him, he's more real than Joey. That would mean that Tom has become more real than Joey, and the only person he has to continue fooling is himself.

But his act of heroism sees the Joey persona reemerge, and the appearance of Fogerty threatens to destroy the life Tom has led. With the emergence of Joey, the film leaves the everyday realism of small town America for the hyped up intensity of the world of action film. First glimpsed in the diner fight, this comes to a head in the scene where Tom kills Fogerty. The film presents extremely graphic violence, and clearly takes pleasure in showing Tom's skill as a killer. The noise of buzzing flies and sight of rotting flesh ties this in with the decaying organic environments of Existenz.

When Tom kills those men, it is Joey emerging to protect the false Tom indentity. Edie's discovery of this alternate persona calls into the question her entire life, most notably articulated when she asks if Tom just made up the name 'Tom Stall,' and if he did, what does that mean for her identity and the kids'. One of the more questionable scenes in the film is the rape, where Edie essentially stops resisting Tom and seems to enjoy what he's doing to her.

I do question it, but at the same time, I think her motivation is apparent. In the previous scene she'd told the sheriff that there was no Joey, realizing that to expose Tom's secret would be the destruction of her life. In the following scene, she has the choice between rejecting Tom/Joey and again rendering her life false, or accepting this man as Tom and allowing their life to continue as was. In the end, she chooses to let him back into the house, and in the final scene, even though we're not sure what will happen next, it's clear that Edie has embraced the lie, and chosen to see Tom as the family man he's created, rather than the killer he was.

The film reminded me of Chanwook Park's Vengeance trilogy, in the way it's a film about the negative effects of violence, yet at the same time clearly fetishizes the filmic depiction of violent acts. Cronenberg stages the final showdown as a hyperbolic scene of murder excess, where Joey's full skill as a killer comes into play to destroy everyone who knows about his past. Ironically, it's only Joey who can protect Tom, and after he kills all Richie's people, he's essentially killed Joey as well. He can go back to the life he had, and no one will know about who he as, except for Edie, and she's chosen to embrace the lie.

The film is clearly a critique of American life, implying that our peace and stability is a false front, built on countless violent acts, with more and more violence neccesary to preserve the status quo. I think this was a top notch film, simultaneously entertaining and thought provoking. It reminds me of Straw Dogs, in the way it uses thriller trappings as a strong critique of American life.

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