Saturday, 15 October 2011

"A History of Violence" Analysis

A History of Violence (2005)
Dir: David Cronenberg

“Ask him how come... he's so good... at killing people.”

I have written a lot about the director David Cronenberg, partly because he is my second favourite director and partly because he is so well spoken and interesting to read about and listen to. For those who aren’t so familiar, Cronenberg is a Canadian born director who studied Bio-Chemistry and Literature at University before discovering film. Due to his background, Cronenberg’s major
inspirations come from authors and books rather than film and directors. He also has a fascination with our biology and has revolutionised the sub-genre of horror known as body horror. Basically, this sub-genre is very body conscious and theorises that the fatal threat in the horror film should come from within the body and as Cronenberg explains it: “The first fact of human existence is the human body. If you get away from physical reality, you're fudging, in fantasy land, not coming to grips with what violence does.”

During his early career, in Canada, he had worked for a production company called ‘Cinepix’ who dealt in the distribution of cheap, soft-core porn and general sleaze. Many of his early films were financed by a tax loophole which allowed a substantial amount of money for the production of films within Canada. The abundance of money gave Cronenberg a creative freedom that he would not have been afforded if he had to worry about financial return at the box office.

Fans would suggest that he became a big Hollywood director when he made “The Fly” in 1986. And they would be right, to a certain extent. It’s true that he had a big budget and big stars to work with, however he refused to compromise his vision and requested final cut and that he re-write the script. His following films “Dead Ringers” and “Crash” were far from mainstream Hollywood entertainment. Even the commerciality of “The Fly” would not prepare Cronenberg fans for “A History of Violence.”

Adapted by Josh Olson from the Graphic Novel, by John Wagner and Vince Locke; Cronenberg’s fans will immediately be struck by the omission of his name from the writing credits. This may well be an indication that his full artistic vision has been somewhat compromised by the Hollywood studio system (which has evolved into a more ruthless and financially-minded version of its former self). It will be no surprise, then, that all the major problems with the film are script related. Keeping this in mind, Cronenberg truly displays his masterful direction of actors and exercises extreme subtlety where perhaps there was none in the script. This is the best possible way a director could have shot the script he was given. However, to properly analyse the film, we must forget all the behind the scenes information we are afforded in this media saturated day and age and review the film that is presented to us.

This is a subversive piece of filmmaking by a master of subversion. Cronenberg has used the framing device of a psychological thriller and instead of focusing too heavily on the plot, over which he had limited control, he chose to focus on the character of Tom Stall/Joey Cusack. The themes Cronenberg deals with I will discuss later, after talking about the more formal elements.

The story follows a very familiar thriller paradigm: a traumatic event causes people to question the true identity of someone they have known for many years. Typically well shot, as all of Cronenberg’s films are. The cinematography is subtle in that it tries not to draw attention to itself, much like the character of Tom Stall himself. The ending seems quite rushed however and anticlimactic. The short bout of gun play resulting in Richie Cusack’s murder and Joeys ‘triumph’ is too expected and uninspired. The very end scene, however, is beautifully heartbreaking and poignantly hopeful because of the performances of all therein. The violence that Cronenberg fans have come to expect is there but, as always, it is never gratuitous. Never does he linger on images of pain longer than needed and however explicit the violence may be at times it is always justified within the context of the film. The audience needs to experience violence as something visceral; something nasty; something that has consequences. If a person is hit in the nose repeatedly, it will break – Cronenberg knows that to not show the effects of violence on the body would be a lie and it would create a world where violence has no consequences. To do this would be dangerous and reckless filmmaking. Cronenberg is better than that, even if the script is not.

The early scenes are very much overacted and are in keeping with the set up that this family is part of an archetypal, quiet, small American town where everyone is on first name basis and nothing ever happens. It is reminiscent of the Hollywood pictures of the 40’s and 50’s. The overt idealism and Americana permeates each frame. This is juxtaposed with the understated credit sequence which shows two armed criminals shoot a young girl who is the remaining witness to th
eir violent robbery. The idyllic scenes that follow are tainted by a sense of dread; a dread that the innocence of the Millowbrook, Indiana townsfolk will be lost when the two criminals inevitably pass through town. Cronenberg is at his most Capra-esque in the first act; it even features a close up of a white letter box with STALL printed on the side and the flag indicating it’s containing mail raised. As much as the start is a Capra film we still see Cronenberg rearing his silvery, quaffed head. Not least in the sex scene between Tom and his wife Edie. Although, on paper, the scene may break the illusion of suburbia and seem gratuitous, in practise it has a different effect; it says that “A History of Violence” is a film for adults and that in this world, unlike the Capra-esque world preceding it, sex exists. It also serves to subtly show the relationship dynamic by how they engage in intercourse. They are playful; Edie dresses in a cheerleading outfit and the scene ends with both receiving oral pleasure simultaneously.

When the criminals enter town and stop at Tom’s diner for ‘coffee and a slice of pie’ the ominous tone
of the opening scene and the built up dread finally comes to a cathartic climax. In a scene that sees Tom deftly dispatch of the criminals as if he were a seasoned professional, we see the first glimpses of his sinister past. There is no scene telling the audience that Tom has begun his relapse into Joey, the entire change in Toms personality is conveyed by the shifting character dynamics and with Viggo Mortensen’s moving performance. Cronenberg respects his audience’s intelligence (something many modern directors don’t do – I’m looking at you, Brett Ratner) and assumes that anyone who has watched the way Tom relates to his family before and after the incident will be able to understand that something within Tom has changed. For example, Cronenberg contrasts the earlier sex scene with a more lustful, primal and clumsy sex scene that takes place on the stairs of the Stall’s home. It is yet another way that we see Tom’s personality change to Joey’s after killing the men in his diner. He begins using violence more as a means to settle arguments, assert his dominance and masculinity. For example, in the scene where Tom confronts his son about being suspended from school for fighting a bully, he tells his son “in this family, we do not solve problems by hitting people!” and his son replies “No, in this family, we shoot them!” with scorn. Tom resolves the argument by hitting his son. Tom has relapsed into Joey. If Joey truly had “been dead a long time” then this would not have happened. Here Cronenberg suggests that there is no way one can escape ones past; one and ones past are intricately linked; all one can do is change the way one lives in the present. He explores the theme of personal transformation; an exploration that will make even hard-core Cronenphiles feel right at home – as far removed as “A History of Violence” may be from films like “Videodrome” and “Scanners”.

Cronenberg masterfully delves into the dense character of Tom/Joey and the effect that he has on his family. Which life is the real one? Joey or Tom? Perhaps the answer is not as simple as it may seem and this is why the film is so deceptive. Joey’s personality was born out of the nature of his circumstances. Tom’s personality was born out of Joey’s conscious choice to be who he wanted. Cronenberg uses the hackneyed plot as a vehicle for a character study that asks ‘do we consciously decide who we are, or is who we are fixed at birth and a result of genetics?’ This fundamental battle between nature vs. nurture lies at the heart of “A History of Violence”. When viewed with this question in mind this film seems less influenced by the graphic novel and more so by the work of Charles Darwin and Richard Dawkins. Are genetics our fate, or are we able to change who we were at birth?

If the film had been as clichéd and uninspired as the plot would suggest it would present a black and white morality. But “A History of Violence” has the strength of its convictions and presents a morally and thematically complex message that is far more mature and interesting than it had any right to be. In “A History of Violence”, however, things aren’t that simple. He is made up of parts of both. Had it not been for Joey, Tom would have died in that diner. The truth is, Tom needs Joey, and Joey needs Tom. Cronenberg has said “As a filmmaker, I ask questions but don't have answers. Moviemaking is a philosophical exploration. I invite the audience to come on the journey and discover what they think and feel.” So it is up to us, the audience, to decide how many parts Joey, and how many parts Tom constitute the whole. Needless to say Cronenberg does not come down one way or the other, but rather shows how the two aspects work together and live symbiotically. The implications of this reach much further than it may seem at first. If we are who we decide then why is Tom’s son so quick to turn to violence? How does he dispose of his tormentor so proficiently, unless he has unconsciously inherited his father’s lethality? If Tom does not exist at all who does Edie love? Certainly not Joey. It is in questions like these that the film’s thematic complexity lies.

Don’t be fooled by the Hollywood stars and the big name studio (New Line); this is a mature piece of work from an underappreciated, mild-mannered and soft spoken maverick of modern cinema.

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