Monday, October 17, 2005

A History of Violence

The title of David Cronenburg's "A History of Violence" has two connotations. The first involves the bloody past of protagonist Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen), a former mobster whose middle-aged life in bucolic America is an attempt to escape that history. The second connotation pertains to the film's thematic thrust, which deals not so much with a historical account of violence (which would originate with Cain and Abel), but with the manifold effects of its occurrence.

That said, there was no better choice to portray Tom Stall than Mortensen. Perhaps no actor in Hollywood is better equipped to convincingly melt away a timid and laconic exterior to reveal the most primal of instincts burning within (see: Aragorn).

The film proceeds like a psychology experiment. During the first 20 minutes or so, we see our baseline condition: Stall's tranquil town, his wife Edie's (Maria Bello) sexual desperation, his son's milquetoast response to a school bully, etc. Then, the element of violence is introduced via two icy killers who lecherously attempt to rob Stall's diner at closing time. Stall leaps into action, stealthily dispensing of the two armed men with only a knife wound in the foot for a receipt.

From here, Cronenburg skims over what he knows is a somewhat tired issue in public discourse: the media's sycophantic relationship with violence and the worship it inspires. Awaiting Stall's return from the hospital is a TV reporter; gracing the front page of the next day's paper is Mortensen's unassuming face. Stall's son's adulation for his father skyrockets, and Stall's diner receives an ample boom in the volume of its clientele. Though Cronenburg doesn't dwell on these effects of Stall's heroic act, the director doesn't ignore that this is indeed a film about violence, and you can't have violence without inspiring intrigue.

But intrigue is not all violence inspires in this movie. As a facially disfigured mobster from Stall's past (Ed Harris, complete with hammy East-coast accent) begins insisting on knowing Stall from Philadelphia and claiming he is actually a man with mob connections named Joey Cusack, Cronenburg begins to explore the other corollaries that stem from violent acts.

First, contagion. Tom's son suddenly takes it upon himself to kick the high holy fuck out of his pestiferous bullies, shrugging off the legal ramifications of his actions by noting to his father that he only beat up his tormentors, he didn't kill them. Tom promptly slaps the saliva out of his son's mouth, shocking them both. The plot continues to chug along at its brisk pace...

Tom confronts mobster in front yard. Kills mobster and cronies. Admits being Joey Cusack, distrust ensues.

Second, sex. The film's most powerful scene arrives when Tom and Edie Stall turn a domestic scuffle into a fiery sexual encounter in the middle of a wooden starway. Though perhaps a bit obvious (which made it all the more surprising when I found out some people thought this was a rape scene), Cronenburg is elucidating the inextricable connection between sex and violence. Both acts thrive on excitation, thus when you have one the other is not far behind. The scene also derives its power from its contrast with Tom and Edie's earlier, far more awkward sexual encounter.

Tom goes home to Philly. Kills mobster brother in self-defense; stellar choreography. Maintains stoicism.

Ultimately though, Stall returns to his family and is set a place at the dinner table by his daughter. Equilibrium restored. Like the pulling back of a pendulum, the act of violence at Stall's diner displaced everything around it until the violence subsided and everything settled back into a rest position.

Cronenburg manages to include a few signature visuals in the film; namely that of the goat-teed robber's blown-apart face resting on the floor and the anonymous mobster's squished tomato of a nose after a few brutal elbows from Stall.

My only criticisms of the movie involved the son's storyline. The letter jacket-wearing bully was far too stereotypical and the son's response to learning of his father's mob-related past was way too unbelievable ("So are you gonna wack me now?" ugh).
(photo courtesy of

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Wallace & Gromit

Hooray for Wallace & Gromit! Ever since my cousins Adam and Christian showed me "A Close Shave" and "The Wrong Pants" many Thanksgivings ago, the winsome camaraderie between that cheese-lovin' Englishman and his industrious mute of a canine best friend has claimed a tiny, albeit tireless place in my heart. "The Curse of the Were-Rabbit" was phenomenal.

(photo courtesy of

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