The Oberlin Review
<< Front page Arts November 4, 2005

Short Cuts
Violence doesn’t always hurt

Hollywood’s output this fall has been typically uninspiring, as the major studios once again catch their breath between the summer’s premier blockbusters and the holiday season’s prestige pictures. Thankfully, we have director David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence in theaters to offer a welcome respite from all the mediocrity.

Cronenberg’s film, based on a graphic novel of the same name by John Wagner and Vince Locke, tells the story of Tom Stall, a loving husband and father who owns a diner in small-town Indiana. Viggo Mortensen plays Stall, and in doing so shows that he’s willing to spend the star capital he accumulated with the Lord of the Rings trilogy to make movies that challenge his newly-established screen persona.

When two out-of-towners attempt to stick up Tom’s diner, he takes them out with surprising efficiency, saving the lives of a couple of his employees in the process. Tom’s heroic actions thrust him into the media spotlight and, before long, people from his past start showing up in town looking for him. Read no further if you’d rather not find out why these figures from Tom’s past seek him out.

As the opening flashback scene in A History of Violence makes clear, Tom used to be a violent criminal, a man who not only stole but also murdered. Later, we learn that he was involved in organized crime with his brother Richie, and that his real name is Joey. Richie is played by a well-known Hollywood actor, but I won’t mention his name here.

Though I’ve since been told it’s listed in the opening credits, the advertising for A History of Violence has done a good job of keeping the performance a secret, and I think it can be made more effective by its surprise. Ed Harris also has an excellent turn as a mob boss Joey wronged.

Cronenberg presents Joey as a man who genuinely wanted to close the door on his violent past. In doing so, he and screenwriter Josh Olson use Joey to illustrate the difficulty of extreme reinvention to the point of erasing one’s old identity. A History of Violence also offers a disturbing portrait of unconditional love by showing how Tom’s wife and children come to the tragic realization that they’ve loved a murderer.

The movie provokes the audience to explore its own relationship with violence as well as Joey’s. I was shocked to find that even after Joey’s brutality in the opening scene, I found myself identifying with him.

Cronenberg makes us aware how strong cinematic storytelling conventions are by perversely inviting us to root for a remorseless killer. In this way, A History of Violence offers the conventional pleasures of a violent thriller while encouraging us to question our attraction to violence.

As in other films, A History of Violence presents situations where violence seems justified. Where other films encourage the viewer to indulge in the pleasure of violence by giving them the moral license of justification, A History of Violence’s amoral protagonist never lets the audience forget that this setup is merely established to disguise the audience’s desire for violence.

Cronenberg’s thematic project is not a new one. Hollywood has a long history of serving up the pleasures of violence with an accompanying criticism of viewers’ thirst for that violence. For example, A History of Violence treads the same thematic terrain as Clint Eastwood’s 1992 deconstructive western, Unforgiven. In this light, A History of Violence is probably not a great film. It’s thought-provoking and worth seeing, however, especially in this bleakest of seasons for the regular theater patron.

Show Me the thriller in Elyria

Show Me, the first film from Canadian writer/director Cassandra Nicolaou, comes to Elyria’s Cobblestone 20 cinema this Friday before moving on to New York and Los Angeles. The film received much attention in Nicolaou’s native Canada, where it participated in various film festivals.

Show Me is a thriller telling the story of Sarah (Michelle Nolden), a woman kidnapped in traffic by two teenage vagrants while she is on her way to spend a romantic weekend with Sam (Allegra Fulton). Sam is delayed, and the two youths order Sarah to drive them to her cabin in the woods.

Jenna (Katharine Isabelle), the more disturbed of the two vagrants, has the idea to kidnap Sarah and hold her captive. She also has masochistic tendencies, and her violent nature is revealed through flashbacks and then repeatedly re-enacted.

Jenna’s boyfriend Jackson (Kett Turton) is more cautious than she. It is established that he is in trouble with other criminals and the police. He shows more depth than Jenna and is the more rational of the two. Sarah latches on to this early on and attempts to manipulate him whenever Jenna is absent.

The instability of the couple, in particular Jenna, creates a sadistic triangle in which power keeps shifting. Initially, the prank seems to be for Jenna’s amusement and any monetary gains seem to be for her benefit. It is not only Jenna’s needs that drive the story, however, as Jackson’s dependence on Jenna, along with Sarah’s struggle for survival, shift the plot in other directions, with predictable but entertaining results.

None of the characters seem to know the truth about the others, and the power they hold over one another depends on what they get to see or not see in comparison to the others. The constant use of a video camera and reference to home movies represent their attempt to see the people underneath.

The film itself is a fairly conventional genre piece and it is no surprise when the victim becomes the victimizer. The film also uses cross-cut narratives, flashbacks and various other stylized techniques to give the illusion of depth that one struggles really to find.

Nicolaou tries to manipulate us the way Sarah manipulates Jackson, but all the secrets and mysteries revealed seem trite and meaningless.

This is coupled with a penchant for non-linear edits that probably reveal too much at once, taking away any potential penetration that this fairly standard scenario could have offered.

The film is formally very good. Editing is well-paced and the rich cinematography conveys many enjoyable images. All this is let down, however, by a mediocre script and some bland performances. The characters are a little cliché and none of the actors really add anything unique to the roles; they are forgettable once the film has ended.

Overall, Show Me has some promise, but it falls short of being a really strong psychological thriller, with no real explanation of the characters and nothing particularly threatening or interesting.

– Oliver William Pattenden


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