October 2, 2005

"A History of Violence."

I just saw the David Cronenberg movie, "A History of Violence." Now, I don't purport to do movie reviews here, and that's a particularly good thing in this case, because I don't have a coherent opinion about this movie. I don't even have an opinion as to whether it's a good movie. I'm just giving some bloggish impressions, numbered to give some semblance of order.

There are no spoilers here.

1. Nice that it's only about 90 minutes long. I always get antsy at the movies. 90 minutes is a typical length for a comedy, not a drama. So my question is: Was this a movie of atypical length? Was it a comedy? I was laughing anyway and so were some other people. The violent outbursts felt like very serious, stunning violence, but overall, it was comic, the way "Pulp Fiction" is comic. Yet there were no obvious laugh lines. It was a really interesting feeling of being appropriately affected by the danger and violence, but still finding it funny.

2. It has a dreamlike quality -- and begins with a child's nightmare (at least that's where I came in). No, there are no monsters. Light chases the monsters away. So the child is told. Yet the movie is quite underlit -- what diner has mood lighting? -- perhaps to signify that the tale to be told follows the logic of a dream: threatening characters show up in your ordinary life and you need to escape from them, in one scene after another, where very strange things happen, dragging you out of your normal life; troubling questions arise about your identity and the identity of others around you, as you try different ways to get back home, as you lose your grip on what your home is.

3. It was a low budget movie, I'm assuming. That may explain a lot of the low lighting. The point where I realized they really made this go without the money they needed: Two men enter what is supposed to be a very rich man's mansion and, when each of them steps on what is made to look like a solid marble threshold, it caves way down like a flimsy board.

4. Viggo Mortenson makes a great leading man. Much of the movie is watching his face. I enjoyed that.

5. Maria Bello is not a good actress. She's interesting to look at, but she can't do what is needed in a film like this. Cronenberg tried to cover for her inadequacies by having her do things like run out of the room and throw up off camera or bury her face in Mortenson's shoulder and cry. We'd watch more of him then, instead of her. And by the way, if there's one thing I would like to ban in movies, it's having a character express emotion by vomiting.

6. That was William Hurt? Wow, he got... less attractive.

I haven't read any reviews of this movie. I just saw Mortenson on Letterman and liked him and his clip, and I saw that the film got an 80% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. I guarantee that all six points above were written without reading a single review. Now, I'll read some reviews.

Here's a line from one of the less good reviews, by Stephen Witty:
"Violence" -- hailed in some quarters as [Cronenberg's] most "accessible" film -- is, sadly, his least interesting, settling for some genre setpieces and a pair of eccentric performances by villains Ed Harris and William Hurt. As a history of Cronenberg, it's a good introductory lecture, detailing his careful composition, mastery of unease and complicated thematic interests. As a Cronenberg film though, it's figuratively bloodless, without any real body to it at all.
Fair enough.

From Kevin Turan:
It's a measure of Cronenberg's confidence in his material, his cast and his own skill that he purposely opens this ultimately compelling film with a glacially paced sequence of a pair of drifters checking out of a motel at a velocity that only Jim Jarmusch in full "Broken Flowers" mode could love.
Hey, I missed a glacially paced sequence that opened the film. Was I really that late?
Matching her costar's level of commitment, Bello gives her most involving performance, supplying a level of emotional belief that is the film's secret weapon, holding it together no matter where it goes.
Too many male reviewers forgive too much when they love the actress's looks. I give Turan a demerit.

The WaPo's Desmond Thomson:
"A History of Violence" forces us to confront our Pavlovian conditioning to violence, whether we are watching real military campaigns with living room detachment or whooping and hollering for fictional ones. It's not about popcorn heroism or the importance of protecting an increasingly troubled world against hostile invaders. It's just about why we're cheering.
Generic, trite observation. How about a review of, you know, this movie?

Over at Entertainment Weekly, there's praise for the score, which reminds me to say I hated the score, and there's a discussion forum, where I read that audiences hated this movie. Hmm... I wonder why? Was it marketed as a mainstream film, but it's an art film. I don't know. As an art film, it's actually awfully B-movie-ish.


MD said...

Hmm, Viggo looks a lot older in this picture than I remember him being......but who cares? I love the grooves of his face. It's a damned interesting face, innit?

XWL said...

Viggo will be 47 this month so I think he looks about right there for a man of 47.

And I've always thought of Cronenberg as a man who makes B-Movies with art film pretensions, not the other way around (and I loved Naked Lunch, the other films, not so much).

Plus according to a story at Contact Music Cronenberg invited his wife to the set to 'demonstrate' what he wanted from Viggo and Maria in their sex scenes and became so wrapped up in the moment that they continued with what they were doing long after the demonstration proved to be instructive.

vbspurs said...

Bah. I went to see The Greatest Game Ever Played last night, not HoV, so now you and I can't bandy back and forth exchanging barbs.

I might be catching Prize Winner from Defiance Ohio tonight, or perhaps finally Burton's Corpse Bride. We'll see.

TGGEP was very missable -- with only innovative editting to recommend it. There are some films that are meant for the small screen. This is one of them.

Also, if you hated Titanic for the same reasons I did, because of it's formulaic "rich people, evil; poor people, great!" script, then you'll definitely hate the golf flick.

Can't say I'll be watching Cronenberg's latest offering. I haven't even seen The Fly, I should see this?


MD said...

Ahh, I thought he was much younger than 47 for some reason....

EMC said...

Ann, you thought this was funny? I thought it was one of the un-funniest movies I've ever seen. I enjoyed it, and the performances, I thought, were good, but the script ... there just wasn't much to the story.

Ann Althouse said...

EMC: Yeah, I had a lot of laughs. Does that make you think I'm evil? Do you think "Pulp Fiction" is funny?

HaloJonesFan said...

There's funny slapstick wocka-wocka humor, and then there's "well the rope broke when we tried to hang him, but on the way down he cracked his head open on the gallows so he died anyway" humor.

PS I don't think William Hurt was ever attractive. But then, guys aren't really my type.

Bill Millan said...

I posted this comment to my blog.

Just got back from seeing two movies at the local center, "History of Violence" and "Serenity."

"Serenity" is a good space opera, much better than the Star Wars type. Kind of an upgrade TV movie.

"History of Violence" was unusual. First off, an excellent script, not at all derivative, IMO. Violent? Yes. But done well.
Plot outline: An average family is thrust into the spotlight after the father commits a seemingly self-defense murder at his diner.

The key was the villains. Most movies skimp on this aspect, and don't hire good actors for the roles. This one has Ed Harris and William Hurt, two top-notch ones.

Eh Nonymous said...

Low budget? Was it? I didn't notice it being particularly dark. I'm a heavy Ebert reader, so I'm hypersensitive to a problem he's constantly decrying: when a movie looks "dark," and it shouldn't, it may be because the idiot projector owners (the managers of the theater) believe (incorrectly) that one can save the lifetime of the very expensive bulbs by dialing down the brightness.

You can't. They're bulbs; they have a lifetime, then poof.

Result: no savings to them, but ruined movies for all.

I didn't notice the plank.
I did notice that the moments of intense violence had an almost cartoonish feel- but that it fit with the feel and the tone of the whole.

My take: Viggo's a fantastic actress, and if Maria Bello's terrible, I want to know who your standard for a good actress is.

Bello was in The Cooler; Payback; Thank You For Smoking, and some other good movies. Often, she's not playing a good girl, or at least not one with an unblemished past - or present. She's also extremely literate, and down-to-earth, and she's from Philadelphia - all high praise.

Thank you for not spoilering.

Freeman Hunt said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
OddD said...

***May be slightly spoily****

Too many male reviewers forgive too much when they love the actress's looks. I give Turan a demerit.

Eh, too many female reviewers are harsh with female actresses they've taken a disliking to. (Personally, I hate being told that I don't know the difference between "attractive" and "talented/skilled".)

Having said that, though, there was something weird/flat about her performance and the whole handling of her character. They did a weird amount of hugging, but I thought perhaps that was part of the overall heavy-handedness of the film. ("Look how close they are! Look at how alienated they are! Ta-dah!") In other words, you may be crediting Cronenberg with trying to cover up for her weaknesses, when it was perhaps a mishandling on his part.

Purely speculating of course. But Ms. Bello's track record with acting might be better than Cronenberg's track record with actors. (Scanners anyone?)

What really struck me, though, is how much they tried to make her look like Diane Lane.

Viggo was great, though. I have to admit he's never impressed me (going back to Witness) but what great work here. He pretty much carries Hidalgo, too.