David Cronenberg is “starting to damage my calm.” These were my thoughts as I sat through “A History of Violence” last night. Needless to say, “Serenity” was still flying around in my head. This however was a movie I had also been looking forward to, and I really expected to like it. Once the film began, I thought I did like it. As the film went on, I still wanted to like it. But by the time the film took an abrupt turn with a change in character and setting, I knew I could never like it.
Cronenberg lures us in with the familiarity of the setting and the characters. Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) and his family are “just folks” who live in Smalltown, USA (in this case, rural Indiana). He owns a diner, his wife Edie (Maria Bello) is a lawyer, and his son Jack (Ashton Holmes) is the increasingly stereotypical wisecracking semi (or maybe all the way) geeky, Converse wearing, unpopular teenage “guy” (think Seth Cohen, but more real). He uses these all-American people in their all-American town to make us feel safe and comfortable. I liked these people. They reminded me of myself and people I know. I wanted to know more about these people.
But then Cronenberg yanks the table cloth out from under the vase. Now, I think his intentions were to show that “the flowers are still standing” (from the closing scene of the family dinner), but to me, everything came crashing down. In Cronenberg’s own words, he is “a complete Darwinian” and he wanted to make a movie that shows “innate violence of Darwinian evolution.” I think the fact that I realize that Darwinism doesn’t work is why this film, ultimately, does not work for me. Some may wonder whether Jack’s change in character is a result of poor modeling by his father. I think this would have been a much more interesting message to portray, but Cronenberg says no, he is simply following his “natural” inclination to be violent, like his father.
Now, I’m not saying that humans are not violent. We are all totally depraved, and I think this film does a good job of showing that no matter how hard we might try, we can’t change this on our own. Of course, this is not the message the director wants us to get out of it. He says that violence allows the “fittest” to survive (whether it be in the mob or the high school locker room). I know that only Christ can allow us to truly leave this state of total depravity. Of course, I didn’t expect the film to show this message (how refreshing it could be to see a movie show that though), but I am disappointed and at least somewhat surprised that the movie shows no signs of hope. Cronenberg leaves us with a family that survives by being violent. According to him, violence is the answer. I’m sorry, but I cheered for Jack when he outwitted the tool and cringed when he kicked the crap out of him.
The movie is not poorly made. The cinematography was beautiful, wonderfully capturing the majestic, vast emptiness of middle America. The score was very effective, although unmemorable. The acting by the leads is well done (and kudos to young Holmes who I was especially captivated by). However, I felt Ed Harris and especially William Hurt was guilty of overacting and turning their villains into cartoonish caricatures. Once the film turns into a somewhat generic gangster movie, everything seems to come to a grinding halt and the last half hour seems to drag on forever. And while I know that violence was inevitable and necessary for this story, I felt that Cronenberg was at times pushing the envelope just for the sake of it. I know what he intended to show through the opening sex scene, but couldn’t he have conveyed the same message by just showing us the couple spending time on their “date” together rather than showing us rather hardcore pornography? And the other sex scene stepped over the line into marital rape. And I felt that some of the violence was simply gratuitous. I really wish I had not seen all of the things this movie showed me. I should have been more discerning. These images are in my head now, and I cannot escape them. They are disturbing and troublesome. So is the movie as a whole. Its message is bothersome, and I the fact that there are people in this world, like Cronenberg, who truly believe that this is how the world works breaks my heart and boggles my mind.