capsule review: a history of violence

In the film’s press conference at Cannes, David Cronenberg expressed his intention to make viewers of A History of Violence complicit in the film’s violence, to make them question the entertainment value of morally repugnant acts. Yet it’s a gambit that fails precisely because Cronenberg never succeeds in letting viewers know they’re being played. The film, a self-described commercial feature based on a graphic novel, is a fairly standard tale of a man trying to escape a history of violence only for that history to catch up with him. A more existential take would have examined the bad faith Tom Stall, played by Viggo Mortensen with his typical intensity, exhibits by attempting to erase his past, but Cronenberg ultimately indulges the very violence he hopes to condemn. It’s telling that, while the innocent are merely threatened with horrible death, it’s only the bad guys who actually die brutally. It’s the old exploitation flick stand-by; give a moral imprimatur on immorality by presenting “deserving” victims, people easily cheered to their death. Violence solves, or at least provides closure, to the characters’ problems, emptying Tom Stall’s desire to reform of meaning. At the very least, the lesson is that it’s very easy to be a pacifist after the war’s been fought.

Cronenberg certainly displays some of the directorial brilliance that makes Eastern Promises such a gem – a willingness to take his time, to let the camera linger long enough for audiences to pick out important details for themselves – although he often goes further than is necessary. The sex scenes, rather obvious in their aim to contrast Tom the peaceful man with his original (true?) identity as a frighteningly efficient killer, are potent and raw without being overdone. (But as with the film’s superficial analysis of violence, the addition of sex in the mix – the relationship between sexual arousal and killing is left unexamined. Sex and violence go together like “bacon and eggs,” Cronenberg said at that press conference. I say: Really? Why?) For all the film’s technical accomplishment, especially in the shots establishing the cast’s chemistry, interpretive complexity ultimately comes from outside the film. Sure, you can go Rober Ebert’s way and read all manner of things in the film, but it’s all meta-level stuff that stems from viewers who care to ask questions. The film just sets the pins up, without even bothering with throwing a bowling ball down the lane to knock them down. Unforgiven handled identical themes with greater depth and acumen.

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