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Thursday, March 2, 2006

Uncontrollable forces of human nature

Cronenberg invites you to take a personality test

A History of Violence

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)
Director: David Croneberg
Running time: 96 minutes
Language: English
Currently showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

If some clean-cut, smiling proselytizers were to knock on your door and proceed to give you reams of information on the Church of Satan, clearly something would be amiss. Similarly, if director David Cronenberg, master of the bizarre in films like "Videodrome" and "exisTenZ," were to suddenly release a mainstream action-thriller, you would be correct to react suspiciously.

News photo
Heidi Hayes, Maria Bello, Viggo Mortensen and Ashton Holmes in "A History of Violence"

You know, Cronenberg, the guy who gave us exploding heads in "Scanners," creepy gynecological experiments in "Dead Ringers," car-accident fetishism in "Crash" and insectile hallucinations in "Naked Lunch." Could this same director give us a straight-up suspense flick that you could easily file next to "Cape Fear" or "Straw Dogs"?

Well, yes and no. "A History of Violence" is certainly Cronenberg's most accessible film since "The Fly," and his story here -- about a decent, small-town guy who fights back when his family is placed in peril by merciless thugs -- looks more like a Hollywood film than anything the director has done before. And yet, into this seemingly familiar narrative seep moments of typical Cronenberg unease and uncertainty that keep us from feeling too comfortable.

For example, take one scene that we've all seen before: A meek high-school boy, picked on and harassed by bullies, finally stands up for himself and kicks his tormentor's butt. That scene is in "A History of Violence," but the boy we're rooting for goes berserk and beats the bullies so bad -- kicking them when they're down -- that they wind up in the hospital. Or take another, where our hero takes out a bad guy who had been threatening him . . . and Cronenberg gives us a brief but sickening closeup of the man's shot-off jaw.

Cronenberg appears to be doing two things here. He's manipulating us, like so many directors, so we can enjoy the cathartic rush of "righteous" violence; violence in which we can feel the recipient had it coming. But he's also showing us that violence is an uncontrollable force, and there's no containing it or limiting the consequences once it's unleashed. Throughout the film, over and over, he shows us that the same violence can be viewed as heroic or repellent, take your pick. In that sense, the movie is a bit of a Rorschach test.

The film sets us up with a character we can definitely root for. Tom Stall, played by Viggo Mortensen, is a caring husband and father, a nice guy who runs a diner in an idyllic small town in Indiana. We meet the Stalls when their 6-year-old daughter Sarah (Heidi Hayes) wakes up screaming from a nightmare, and Tom, his wife, Edie (Maria Bello), and son, Jack (Ashton Holmes), converge to comfort the girl. Tom reassures her that "there's no such thing as monsters" -- but he's wrong.

Some cold-blooded killers, desperate and on the lam, drive into town and fate has it that they stop in at Tom's diner. Tom is forced to act quickly and decisively to protect his staff, and when he does, he finds himself hailed as a hero by the media the next day. Edie is proud of her husband, but he is decidedly shy of the attention.

It seems Tom was right to be that way when the next day more heavies, fronted by the glass-eyed Fogarty (Ed Harris, at his absolute creepiest), turn up at Tom's diner and start talking in a weird and threatening way. Fogarty, it seems, saw Tom on the news, and decided to pay him a visit and . . .

Let's just leave it at that. The story has a couple of excellent twists, and there's no point in ruining them here. Suffice it to say that, as in "Cape Fear," Tom is forced to take extreme measures to protect his loved ones, and several incredibly tense showdowns result.

What's intriguing is how good he seems to be at inflicting violence, and the effects this has on both his happy nuclear family, and his own perceptions of himself. The dark side, once unleashed, refuses to subside so easily.

Mortensen's masterful performance makes us like Tom so much as the perfect dad that we get truly unnerved when a cold, hard look comes into his eyes. And Bello, playing his wife, is equally captivating. In one scene, in a hospital, she realizes that she just does not know her husband, or what he is capable of, at all. The shock and disbelief she registers is potent.

Always tuned in to the psychosexual aspects of a story, Cronenberg is quick to play up the effects of Tom's action-man transformation on his marriage: Where sex with Edie used to be gentle, with her on top (in a cheerleader outfit!) and leading the show, it gets decidedly rougher. In a scarily out-of-control scene Edie slaps Tom, he throws her into a wall, and the two have brutal sex in the stairwell of their home, which seems to be a lot more orgasmic than that which they knew before. Interestingly, Edie appears as turned on as she is repelled by the new Tom. And that returns us to Cronenberg's purpose here.

As in so many Cronenberg films, violence and the dark side of the psyche is portrayed here as both intoxicating and terrifying. Think of Debbie Harry in "Videodrome," who gets off on putting out cigarettes on her breast, but later meets a nasty end by following these dark desires. Or think James Spader in "Crash," who cannot separate his libido from acts of injury and destruction. Similarly, Tom Spall is not the first Cronenberg character to be torn between two selves -- think of the twins played by Jeremy Irons in "Dead Ringers," or the good mom/bad mom played by Miranda Richardson in "Spider." Cronenberg is clearly drawing from his same pool of obsessions, despite moving toward the mainstream.

"You make a movie to find out what it was that made you want to make the movie," said the director in "Cronenberg on Cronenberg" (Faber & Faber). Clearly, you the viewer will have something to tell him.

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