An alternate history.

*Hello all! I’m being held up by all manner of imps and distraction, so I don’t have very much time today.

*I did, however, get to see

A History of Violence


yesterday, and it was sort of ok, I guess. I’ll say that I really liked the last fifteen or so minutes, which were good enough that they actually rehabilitated the rest of the film a little bit, but on the whole I think the movie’s been pretty thoroughly overrated.

I mean, given the sheer volume of critical laurels placed at this thing’s feet, the writing is often stunningly poor; on the most basic, superficial level, the ‘cozy down-home family’ scenes are often distractingly wooden and overplayed (just look at all the people piling into that girl’s bedroom in the introductory scene - and jeeze, do any small-town local news stations throw around the term 'hero' that loosely in a non-military context?), but there’s a greater pestilence at work, one affecting trash flicks and Oscar bait alike - this movie needs to Explain Things (by way of example, Million Dollar Baby was especially ripe in this regard - not a theme fluttered by in that thing that wasn’t underlined and put in boldface by dialogue or musical cue).

It’s not enough for the audience to realize that a pair of villains are badasses; we need to hear a couple of local kids comment on it. We can’t simply infer that our hero-with-a-past protagonist’s wife is kind of titillated by his brutish actions, we need them to have a slapping and punching domestic brawl, only to break into wild, yowling sex on a staircase. And then - they’re awkward around each other! And then - a shot of her weeping and bruised and shamed! I suppose Cronenberg could have thrown in an explanatory intertitle to hold the audience’s collective hand a bit more firmly, but beyond that we can’t get any more obvious. And don’t get me started with the ‘nerdy son fights back’ subplot (it parallels the main action! I know none of you were expecting that!). Yeah, it’s nice to keep the audience ‘up’ on what’s going on, but this feels like babying to me, and it frankly comes off as contemptuous of the audience’s intelligence.

And it certainly doesn’t help that the film’s themes aren’t exactly oven-fresh: heave you heard the one about violence creating additional violence? Oooh! How about dark secrets lurking in small town America? Say, were you aware that onscreen violence has a certain titillating aspect though in actuality violence is a very bad thing?! You’ll hear it all again here, with the delightsome accompaniment of the aforementioned clunky dialogue and some occasionally nasty performances (the child actress playing the family daughter is particularly bad, though I did have a soft spot for the ultra-cliched high school bully - but really, does anyone get that fucking upset over losing a baseball game in gym class?).


There are subtleties to the film as well. I bet you’ve heard of the fairly explicit contrasting sex scenes that the film sports (one of them described above); the contrast didn’t move me very much, but the foreshadowing in the first one was pretty neat - the roleplaying element kind of nicely anticipates the lead character’s inner turmoil (and his wife’s involvement in such!), all that talk about never being teenagers. And I did enjoy the handling of the action scenes; Cronenberg knows to let the camera linger on the aftermath of the carnage just a little too long (some nice groans in the theater), and the actual killings are nice and swift and bone-cracking brutal. But even better than that, there’s a sort of breakdown in the very execution of the story as the film goes on. The initial action scene comes complete with heroic music and well-choreographed action - nice typical Hollywood bullshit. By the end, the climactic confrontation is pulled off with no music at all, and seems self-consciously clumsy and jumpy, with stuff happening off screen and characters dying in amusingly non-climactic ways. As one of my friends said in the theater: “It’s like he’s first saying that violence is heroic, then that violence is corrupting, and finally that violence is kind of silly.” It was intuitively pulled off, and I even liked William Hurt’s way way over-the-top performance, even if it seemed to arrive from a totally different movie. It was certainly a better movie than the one I’d been watching.

And yeah - excellent final scene. Also, do note how the climax’s setting reflects as much of a ‘hiding’ of violence as the protagonist’s situation. Now that I think of it, I enjoyed the credit sequence too: a nice, long, lethargic meditation on the banality of killing, as seen from the outside. It’s that damned meat in between.

Sure, maybe the dodgy style of the film’s middle is meant to be some sort of satire of action movie placidity-before-the-storm (I think The New York Times made that argument), the crap lines mostly self-aware. Certainly some humor in these sequences is intentional (I’m thinking of the wife’s long run around the house with her shotgun, intercut with Our Hero’s fantastic chase, only to finally cut away to the son trying to eat his cornflakes in the background), but the points the film is trying to make are so well-trodden and unoriginal, that I can’t bring myself to care too much. Only when the film throws up his hands and dares to mix things up in an action sense do my eyes snap to attention. A good final reel (and change) can do a lot to rehabilitate a film, and this one is damn lucky for it.