|BELIEVE THE HYPE? A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE.|
Unconsciously or not, filmmakers make assumptions about their audience. A Brett Ratner can confidently assume that the people going to his movies aren't necessarily the ones flocking to a Robert Altman film, and vice versa. But while it's common to make snide
theories about the kind of idiots who will see a crappy Hollywood blockbuster, there isn't enough ink shed about the sort of idiots who will see a crappy independent film.
A History of Violence isn't a crappy film -- it's a simple thriller told decently well -- but it's the type that sucks up to its audience at every turn. Mainstream movies are accused of pandering to the lowest common denominator, but the art-houses do it too -- it's just not reported as much. Part of the
reason is that the indie crowd includes film critics, who sometimes let themselves be tricked by a director pretending to be smart when really he's not.
David Cronenberg is a much-beloved art-house/critic favorite. There's a reason for this: He makes good movies. But they are often merely good -- what makes them fail to be great is their undeserved confidence that, hey, they're so smart they must be brilliant. Now that Stanley Kubrick is dead, Cronenberg seems to be our thinking fatalist of choice; his films are heartless as a response to a world where living with emotion can kill you. This is a smart pose in the indie world -- it's the equivalent of a "Shit Happens" bumper sticker. But like Kubrick, there is a tendency in Cronenberg's A History of Violence to over-intellectualize its themes, to drain the film's precious bodily fluids by relying on the brain instead of the guts.
Why few people seem to acknowledge this is beyond me. Instead, they accept it wholesale.
A History of Violence tells the small-town story of Tom (Viggo Mortensen), a quiet family man who runs a diner and enjoys a pretty typical Indiana lifestyle. Typical, as imagined by the movies, of course, but let's leave that alone for the moment. One day, two creepy robbers try to hold up the diner, and Tom (to everyone's surprise) reacts quickly, saving the day and killing both baddies. His neighbors treat him like a hero -- until some even worse baddies (led by Ed Harris) come to town, calling him "Joey" and believing he's actually a Philadelphia hood on the run and in hiding.
The plot quickly hinges on the question of whether or not Tom is who he says he is -- and whether or not Ed Harris' goons believe him. The twists shouldn't be revealed here -- they're almost all the fun of the film -- but let it be said that no matter how the story resolves itself, the problem isn't so much the mechanics as it is how the story's told. The problem is that rather than being compelling, A History of Violence settles for being "smart" in a way the art-house crowd confuses for insightful.
Put simply, A History of Violence is a stylish retread of <i>Fargo</i> as directed by Tarantino -- kinetic violence set in an idealized, quiet town. Nothing surprising, but a diverting time at the theater. But according to the buzz that's been spreading since its victorious debut at Cannes, Cronenberg's film is so much more than that. In fact, did you know it's actually an illuminating treatise on the seductive pull of violence in American society? And that it's also about, uh, small towns vs. big cities, and, uh, I don't know, why guns are bad?
For a few years now, it's been popular in the independent film community to make films that openly question the role of the United States in the larger world. Whether it's Elephant reexamining Columbine or Dogville satirizing our self-righteous spirit, America has been in the crosshairs. These great films work as allegory, creating an artificial America to criticize the real one. A History of Violence wants to do the same, but the phony America Cronenberg concocts is just that.
Based on a graphic novel, A History of Violence feels like a cross-pollination of the western and film-noir genres, with a large helping of small-town idealism thrown in as well. There's an intentional obviousness to the staging of scenes, which allows the indie audience to laugh knowingly at the stereotypes on display, but the film never goes beyond the clichés. For instance, a subplot involving Tom's son getting tormented by a class bully is full of Midwest-movie generalities out of Hoosiers. (You know who the jocks are, because they were letterman jackets.) Later, when Tom confronts gangster boss William Hurt, the scenes play out like an awkward homage to bad mob movies. A History of Violence depicts a universe created almost totally from other films, going to great pains to make sure we get how ridiculous its universe is. This becomes the platform for Cronenberg's moral hand-wringing about violence. As if to punish us for being so base -- for liking action and suspense -- Cronenberg turns the movie's moments of gunplay and casual aggression into tisk-tisk offenses, filming them cathartically but then including a close-up of, for instance, a guy's blown-off face as if to say, "See, if you like violence so much, why don't you look at this?" Like Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange, another airless film about masculine antagonism, A History of Violence is very pleased with itself for presenting heaping amounts of violence in a desexualized way in order to show us exactly how our society is. Shame on us!
But here's where Cronenberg is too smart for his own good. His artificial America is so derived from movie clichés that it seems totally alien to anyone's actual experience. After a terrific film like Junebug, which takes the time to understand small-town culture without bias, who can watch A History of Violence's ha-ha contempt for Tom's idyllic Indiana and not reject it completely? Likewise, all of the high school scenes are off-putting because we can't figure out if Cronenberg meant for the students to be total ciphers or that he thinks that's how kids actually are. When an allegorical film succeeds, you quickly see the parallels between the fiction and your reality -- you understand the point being made.
But what is A History of Violence trying to tell us? The Heartland isn't as innocent as advertised? Mobsters in the movies aren't the way they are in real life? You can never know everything about your spouse? Americans live in a culture of violence? I hate to tell Cronenberg this, but these are not jaw-dropping revelations. But that's the weird thing: Indie filmgoers (and many critics) lap it up. Why? Because if mainstream Hollywood enjoys peddling racial and gender stereotypes and predictable storylines so as not to upset its audience's narrow minds, the art-house makes sure to keep congratulating its patrons for how smart they are -- for seeing through the lies, man. A History of Violence is one of those "smart" movies that takes a lightweight, pulpy story and injects it with so much Meaning that we're supposed to marvel at how postmodern it is. (This was the same problem with Unforgiven which required you to be astounded by all its ironic inversions of western archetypes. Your emotional response meant far less than how knowledgeable you were to get the subtext.) You're not supposed to enjoy it; what are you, some kind of heathen? You're supposed to be learning something, so pay attention.
Well, I guess I'm a heathen -- or maybe I'm not smart enough. I enjoyed A History of Violence for its twisty story and its questions of personal identity -- a staple of Cronenberg's work -- but don't tell me that this film has anything to do with questions of national identity. There's something vaguely smug about a filmmaker crafting a wholly unrealistic portrait of America and then criticizing us for being as violent as the people in his movie. Well, first of all, what's up on the screen isn't America, bub, so if you don't mind, I'm gonna disregard the lesson you want to teach me. Second of all, because you dole out the action in A History of Violence with such you-like-this-don't-you? sternness, there's no catharsis in your argument about us all being part of one big fight club.
The indie crowds love A History of Violence because they appreciate what Cronenberg's trying to say and how he's trying to say it. I appreciate it too -- and let it be said that on occasion his film makes some great points about how the introduction of violence into quiet lives creates subtle, unimagined repercussions. But for an allegory to work, it needs to breathe. By comparison, A History of Violence feels like a lab experiment -- and about as fun as staring at a specimen under a Petri dish.
Believe the Hype Rating: 4 out of 10
Tim Grierson is the editor of The Simon. Believe the Hype runs every other Monday on The Black Table.