Thursday, November 19, 2009

A History of Violence

Early in his career, David Cronenberg described his films as if they were shot from the perspective of a parasite. If his earlier works - Shivers (1975), Scanners (1981), and Video Drome (1983) - burrow inside the skin of their subjects to reveal the horrifying interiors lying underneath, his more recent A History of Violence (2005) finds its disturbing vision entirely on the play and exchange of surfaces. I don't think I've ever seen another genre film made for the U.S. film industry remain so stubbornly on the exterior of its characters, to the point that it suggests that no such interiority exists. The film is about apparently mild-mannered Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen), who owns a diner in a small midwestern town in Indiana, with an apparently normal wife and apparently normal kids. It turns out he has a past life he's been keeping from them, one that begins to creep back into his existence after he kills, in barely believable film-heroic fashion, two would-be killers who place the life of his employees in jeopardy during a robbery. It's an event covered by the news media, and soon an ominous Philadelphia gangster played by Ed Harris comes calling, complete with a scarred face and eye that Stall's former proclivity for violence - it's suggested he was once a member of the same criminal organization - would seem to be responsible for. Or, I should say, that Joey Cusack is responsible for, this being the name of Stall's former self, the figure he's been trying to repress in his quiet Midwestern life. The return of Fogarty prompts Stall/Cusack to confront the violent past he's been trying to hide, including a return to Philly and a confrontation with his antagonistic criminal brother, Richie Cusack (William Hurt, in a performance that was nominated for an Oscar, somewhat surprisingly in retrospect).

Suburbia, and its repressions, is a favorite trope of filmmakers from Sam Mendes to David Lynch. Those filmmakers, whatever their merits, tend to see suburbia as an intellectual wasteland, and the repression rampant within it as a question of, at least in Mendes, an authentic character interiority striving to get out. The major questions their films pose about identity thus serve to take us further inside the fragile psyches of their characters in relation to their environments (with both filmmakers these psyches are reflected in the use of mise-en-scene - in Mendes, following in the tradition of Nicholas Ray's Rebel Without a Cause and Bigger Than Life, this is seen in the use of color, and in Lynch, well, in his use of everything but the kitchen sink). For Mendes especially, surface is thus "read" as a key to the dramatic and sometimes tragic insides of the human figures shown us. Cronenberg, too, may believe that exterior signs point to the "inside" of people, but his characters are in such a state of conflict that the word "authentic" does nothing to describe where they've been or where they're going. There is no single moment when Mortensen's performance switches from "Tom Stall" to "Joey Cusack," for example, and neither persona is disambiguated from the other. Instead his performance allows us to register Stall / Cusack as they flit uncertainly across his face at different moments in the story, and much of the drama involves Cronenberg simply pointing his camera at Mortensen and watching his "character" react uncertainly. It gets to the point that "Stall" and "Cusack" don't serve to tell us much of anything about the figure Mortensen plays; they're just names for the tortured chaos that comes to puncture Mortensen's placid surface as the film goes on. Motivations are thus never plainly interiorized: Richie Cusack, for example, desires revenge on his brother because the violence he committed against Fogarty prevented Richie from attaining a higher position in the mob. But as Joey/Tom himself points out, Richie lives in a mansion. To this, Richie just shrugs, and all Cronenberg's camera can do is take in the absurdity.

Ritual, too, is important for Cronenberg, because it allows his characters to explore the surfaces of the other in ways that suggest a deeper connection. In fact, in A History of Violence, ritual is about the only thing that prevents character identity from collapsing into chaos. But for Cronenberg, the connection enabled by ritualistic contact is only a suggestion - and when the rails come off Cusack's fragile performance of Stall (and vice versa) in the second half of the film, the contact turns violent. A pair of relatively explicit sex scenes, for example, do not frame sex as contact between two individuals with a depth of subjectivity that the other already understands, but rather as attempts to "get inside" and understand the other, first tenderly, then violently. In the first, Stall/Cusack's wife, Edie (Maria Bello) dresses up like a cheerleader, so the two of them can relive an adolescent sexuality they were never allowed to experience together; it's the most explicit sign in the film of how one's attempt to understand the inside of the other involves the exchanges of touch. In the second sex scene, after Edie is aware of (and becomes, to some degree, explicit with) Stall's masquerade, the sex turns violent, and the attempt to discover the identity of the other becomes hurtful, resentful, painful - tellingly, though, it's pain that Cronenberg shows us in physical terms, as the two grapple with one another on a staircase (a key architectural trope from Nicholas Ray that Cronenberg borrows here).

In the film's final sequence, however, the failure of ritual is plainly evident. After Tom returns from a violent encounter with Richie in Philly, his welcoming-back into the familial fold is staged as ritual, abstracted to the point where everything we've known about the characters by that point collapses into the play of stock figures moving across the frame: daughter brings father a plate, son passes bread to the father, and husband and wife look at one another, complete in the horror (which reaches its emotional apex in the final two shots of the film) that they do not know each other at all.

This is somewhat familiar territory: Peter Bogdanovich's Roger Corman-produced Targets (1968) is one bizarre, and undervalued, precedent for some of the themes Cronenberg is interested in. But despite its genre trappings, the film nevertheless feels singular.What is remarkable about A History of Violence, in retrospect, is how Cronenberg's film-making - apparent also in the less successful but still pleasurable Eastern Promises two years later - so exhaustively and movingly limns the tight shell its characters place around themselves and one another. His use of genre-movie tropes - Hurt and Harris are hardly "Philadelphian" in any real sense, they exist only as the memory of gangster toughs in films the director has seen - puncture Stall's make-believe with the signs of disruptive difference, but they do not bring the film into a larger social context (when he shifts back into Cusack later in the film's Philadelphia sequence, he's still "playing" at an identity no more authentic than the one he's left in Indiana). A Canadian filmmaker, the signs of his alienation from the U.S. landscape are apparent throughout, not only in other movie-ish qualities in the small-town sets and references (at one point, when Tom suggests to his wife that they might take in a movie at a drive-in, while she reminds him that no drive-ins have existed in the town for decades, Cronenberg uses film itself as the first sign that Tom doesn't quite fit into his surroundings), but also in the traces of Canadian accents in some of the supporting players. I'm assuming Cronenberg left these accents in to let his viewers know that he was not a filmmaker committed to documenting American troubles exhaustively or "authentically," but just a journeyman artist coming to visit. (This film might make a pretty intriguing double feature with Lars von Trier's Dogville, a film even more rigorous than this one, with a nasty James Caan in the nasty Ed Harris role). A History of Violence does not contextualize: it matches the rigor of its characters' illusions and lies with a rigor of its own, and then gently leaves us with the affective consequences of these illusions on the face of its two leads, each individual's pain recognized by the other fully, and as if for the first time.

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