Reviews

A History Of Violence

4

"The violence here is exhilarating," notes David Cronenberg on his laconic and fascinating commentary track, alluding to the big theme of his movie. Essentially, he's saying that if the audience wants to be complicit in on-screen violence, that if we want to cheer as Viggo Mortensen's mild-mannered family man Tom Stall gets all Dirty Harry on the two vicious thugs attempting to rob his smalltown diner, then we have to be complicit in the results of it, too. Cause and effect. "If you like the violence," he says, "you have to accept the consequences." However bloody and nasty and unpleasant they may be...

Adapted from a graphic novel by Judge Dredd's co-creator John Wagner and skilfully scripted by Josh Olson, Cronenberg's 17th feature is, while not his finest, certainly one of his most challenging. It's a profound, powerful, subversive, contemporary Western that plays with classic American archetypes and the mythology of the Old West to masterful effect, and exposes the conflict that exists within the American psyche in regard to violence. The reference points are Howard Hawks and John Ford, as well as the artwork of Edward Hopper, with Cronenberg seducing you into a Normal Rockwell view of smalltown America, all cosy and rosy and slightly idealised - it was filmed in Millbrook, Ontario, subbing as the Mid West - before exploding the myth. When Mortensen's "American hero" becomes the subject of unwanted media attention, he's visited by Ed Harris' scary Irish wiseguy, Carl Fogarty, who claims Tom ain't who he says he is. Rather, he's a vicious gangster from Philadelphia called Joey Cusack and the sins of his past are, inevitably, visited upon the present - namely Tom's wife Edie (Maria Bello) and teenage son Jack (Ashton Holmes).

Cronenberg, it must be said, makes a great DVD host. He's smart, informative, precise, erudite and wry. We learn not only that the violence in the film was developed after watching DVDs that "teach you how to kill people on the street" - DVDs that, he notes, are only available to buy from the internet - but also that the motel in the extended opening shot also appeared in eXistenZ, and that, apparently, this was the first studio movie to feature a 69. "I'm proud to have broken through that barrier," he quips. The rest of the extras are a treasure trove, including not only the film's production in an exhaustive Making Of (revealing, among other things, Mortensen's predilection for handmade fish T-shirts, a fashion item adopted by the crew on a weekly basis), but also the Too Commercial For Cannes feature that presents a filmmaker's eye view of a trip to the festival (press interviews, red carpet, having to clamber up a ladder into the projection booth for the film's 3am technical rehearsal). A stimulating set of extras from one of the US' persistently challenging artists.

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