Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Sep 25, 2005 5:50 pm 
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A stereotypical American family: the Stalls. A little blonde doll daughter, a stringy highschooler son, lawyer wife Edie (Maria Bello), and good-guy hubby Tom (Viggo Mortensen) who owns and runs a cafe in the Norman Rockwell town of Millbrook, Indiana.

Suddenly a pair of horror-movie serial killers threaten Tom at closing time in his cafe and terrorize his waitress and Tom explodes into action, killing both men. Tom is (too easily) an instant hero lionized on every local TV channel (and then some) -- but wait! A strange gangster type, Fogerty, with a withered eye (Ed Harris) appears with mafia entourage calling Tom "Joey" and summoning him back to Philly where he supposedly has a criminal past with loose ends dangling, including a debt to Fogerty.

Yes, Tom appears to have "a history of violence," and when he confronts these new men on his farmhouse lawn his reedy son, already inspired by his dad's new status to beat up the school bully who's been riding him, now backs up his dad with a shotgun and a full willingness to enter the fray.

Attributed to a "graphic novel," Cronenberg's movie, whose concepts would only work in a comic book, is so conventional in its characterizations, look, and music it's hard to believe it comes from the same auteur responsible for the likes of The Fly, Dead Ringers, and Spider.

True, there are mythical and metaphorical elements to the notion of covering up a violent past and a son whose hitman family genes are suddenly awakened. Comix pulp is the stuff of resonant urban folklore.

But much is out of wack in this movie. There's something cheap but soulful about Maria Bello that hardly fits her role as part of the new Norman Rockwell life Tom/Joey has adopted. She's more convincing as a grownup playing cheerleader to revive her husband's sex life than as a lawyer. Since she's part of Tom's new life, why is she too so pugnacious? How did Joey become Tom, and when, and why? Ed Harris, who's often been overrated, plays a straight cliché just fine here, while William Hurt is predictably different and arresting as Joey's older brother. Only, by then, Tom/Joey's Superman skills have begun to drift into parody and Hurt's more original performance only sets that into sharper relief. Isn't Cronenberg just playing with us after all?

The ending where Tom, returned from Philly, wordlessly slides back into his peaceful identity at the dinner table, though again too simplistic for anything but comic book pulp in its conceptual basis, still is very effective in purely cinematic terms, somehow a good way to end. This isn't a bad movie or one you can really avoid. It has to be looked at. Its subject matter is too close to the American grain.

Like Harris', Mortensen's face is a hollow skull. To call this a great performance is to say an empty actor is good in an empty role. There is too little real emotion anywhere in this movie, and no nuance. The blown-up faces and the wounds are dwelt on more lovingly than the reaction shots. Where are Cronenberg's previously exhibited, extraordinary skills at creating weird haunting moods, at fantasy and psycho-drama? This may be an audience-pleasing piece of work to a greater extent than some of the director's more offbeat masterpieces -- it's one of the most obviously mainstream things he's ever done -- but Cronenberg is way off form here, and most of the resonances are in the eye of the beholder.

A History of Violence, 96 mins, debuted at Cannes May 2005; released in the US and UK September; worldwide over the following seven months. My disapproval was shared by the late Stanley Kaufmann of The New Republic, but not by the majority of critics: Metacritic rating 81%. I felt the world was bamboozled by this movie, or involved in mass hypnosis or jumping on a collective bandwagon. I was very disappointed that Jonathan Rosenbaum called it a "masterpiece"; I am pleased to see that in a reassessment five years later in one of his Second Chances series John Cribbs still found it "poorly-conceived, badly-executed hack work." That's an exaggeration. But the film was much overrated. -- That comment was added 9 Aug. 2015 on viewing Dragon/Wu Xia by Peter Chan, a 20111 Chinese period martial arts-cum-noir remake of History of Violence starring Takeshi Kaneshiro and Donnie Yen (which rated a respectable Metacritic 62). Kaneshiro is nicely imbedded in his granny-glasses-wearging costume role of the detective. Yen, as the Viggo Mortenssen character, also choreographed the martial arts sequences. This film comes to us without pretensions or critical raves.

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