Wednesday, September 8, 2010

A History of Violence (David Cronenberg, 2005)

This review was originally published on 10/05/05 at The Cinematheque and is being reprinted here (with a few alterations) as my contribution to the David Cronenberg Blogathon over at Tony Dayoub's wonderful film blog, Cinema Viewfinder.

Canada's very own Auteur of vexatiousness, David Cronenberg, the man who spewed forth some of the most deliriously disturbing cinema of the past two decades, takes now, as his most recent study of penetration (this word can be used both figuratively and literally in describing certain scenes in this film), the philosophical conundrum of violence in America. More accurately, Cronenberg wants us to think about how we see violence, how violence makes us feel and the ways in which we, as both individuals and as a society, have become so desensitized toward said violence that it is as if we no longer even notice it, let alone are appalled by it as we should be. 

What Cronenberg has actually managed to do, as he did in the sublime Crash, is create both a reflexive and antagonistic film, that can be watched simultaneously as a neo-western, transposed to small-town middle America, and as an indelicately funny social attack on mores in America. What Cronenberg has really accomplished, after all is said and done though, has been to create the best damned English-language film of the year so far.   Replete with a seething undercurrent of potential violence (the name does say it all, after all) that seems to boil just under the surface of every single scene, no matter how benign they may otherwise seem, Cronenberg may very well have created the best damned film in his deep, and quite diversely perverse oeuvre.  

After a viciously malaisical prologue, Cronenberg's meditation on violence begins in the sleepy little hamlet of Millbrook Indiana, where the stunning and seemingly homespun husband and wife team of Viggo Mortensen and Maria Bello appear to live the "American Values" idyllic life with their equally beautiful children, Jack and Sara. Firmly establishing, from almost the beginning, both the love and lust between these two people - including a sexual encounter that plays more honestly than any other I have seen in a long long time - it becomes all that more harrowing as we watch them fall apart from each other, and are swallowed up by the titular omen foreshadowing every moment of this film.

Full of Hitchcockian layers, whence the characters may not even know what is going on - even, sometimes, inside their own heads. Mortensen goes miles past his saturated LOTR days and opts for a much more adult-oriented role (as opposed to the rather mentally stunted fanboy-esque following that his King of the Rings garnered him). He is surprisingly nuanced as the everyman turned wrong man (just one of many Hitchcock allusions), possibly turned cold-blooded killer, or maybe even something all together different - a plot point question that can only be answered by seeing this film (there be no spoilers here!). Maria Bello, as Mortensen's wife, is at both her sexiest and emotionally-charged best, playing the damaged wife with such ferocity and teeth - not to mention about as much primal sex appeal as one woman can physically contain. 

Speaking of sex - that too, along with our perspective of gratuitous violence on the screen, is at the heart of Cronenberg's film. We see the juxtaposing of a bookended pair of sexual encounters by this (to say the least) strained couple. The first, a loving, honest rendezvous.  This attempt to capture their lost youth, complete with cheerleader outfit (I did mention how sexy Bello is here, right?) is followed - post violent explosion - by a brutal, near-rape attack on the stairs of their once quiet little home. It is these black and white, cracked-mirror image scenes that sum up the emotional percussion of these two characters.  The urgency of sex as possible violent release (or is that violence as possible sexual release?) penetrates Cronenberg's film as viciously as anything else in there.

Perhaps not quite as dream-induced as some of his more esoteric works (eXistenZ, Dead Ringers, Naked Lunch or, to a lesser extent, The Fly), it is the blurring of what is real, what is not real and what may or may not be real, that has shown up in both Spider and in this film. It is the maturation of Cronenberg as a Filmmaker that pulls it all together, and it is this notion of unreality - or perhaps even surreality - that holds sway over these characters heads like some sort of Damoclean sword - here strung up by the likes of David Cronenberg, in his finest hour. 

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