Posted on Saturday, October 29, 2005 at 12:00 AM
A History of Violence
With a title that sounds more at home on A&E, it is the title of the film, I would imagine, that led to the string of epithets from the three young people sitting behind us as the credit began to roll. They didn't like the ending, they questioned what it was about and seemed precariously poised to spit and walk away. They opted with only the latter.
And while those three youths behind me acknowledged their hatred of the movie and the waste of their money my friend and I stood there, quietly, trying to discern what about the 2 hours, to them, had been a waste. In search of better vernacular I have combed the negative reviews for A History of Violence across the web and noticed an alarming trend. Those that hated it, hated it for completely dissimilar reasons. While one reviewer raved that though the plot was sufficient, the acting was deadened to the point of cardboard cutouts, another reviewer lamented that though the acting was of considerable depth the plot was lacking. For every item that a reviewer disliked another completely disagreed with. Ad Nauseum. Ad infinito... for the amount of negative reviews.
The reviews were predominately favorable of A History of Violence, however. RottenTomatoes has rated the film 'fresh' by their garden variety rating system but though the majority of reviews all read as positive, there are underlying currents to David Cronenberg's film's reviews to be harkened upon before taking roost as the film starts.
Primarily there are issues with the violence and gore. A number of people have criticized the film for taking violence too far. Much headshaking ensues of course. There was more gore, more violence in Lord of the Rings than in A History of Violence. And the title itself should lend an audience to expect at least a little bit of, well, a history of violence. Perhaps it is the pastoral setting. Perhaps it is the lack of insidious lead up music to horror. But over the course of the movie, only 13 people die. And all but three of them are terrible people who doubtlessly deserved that death. One couldn't think that the deaths of those people are the rational behind why viewers have been so shocked at the movie. Is it the graphic nature of the murders? There are scenes of more disturbing graphic quality in countless other movies that don't have 'violence' in the title. The violence certainly isn't senseless for the most part. I think it is because, as is usual when talking about the heartland of America (as this movie sets it's scene) there is supposed to be a purity of life that is untouched by coastal violence. I am reminded of Truman Capote's In Cold Blood and cannot help but wonder if this is Cronenberg's attempt at saying this is what would have happened if the father figure had been a formerly psychotic hitman for the mafia instead of a gentle farmer. But don't quote me on that, let's go back to the movie in question...
Personally, I had issues with the acting at points. I found that the family did not relate well as a family despite the fact that Cronenberg set shots that screamed out at the viewer "look at this normal family". Viggo Mortensen holds the movie though, in my personal opinion, shared greatly by the majority of reviewers. Despite the simplicity of the plot the movie is more about filling in the blanks of what came before than about having something happen and moving forward. Yes, Tom Stalls saves the day in his diner... but Cronenberg directs us back through what happened before rather than lead us to 'what happens next.' The only issue with constantly answering the question of why this happened is that it nevertheless leaves another "why" question unfulfilled. And that could be what has negative reviewers, and those three youths, vociferously chastising the film.
This movie is an almost solid 3 out of 4 for me. It's not quite there. Were the acting stronger and the pace quicker I would have enjoyed the movie more? Possibly. Moreover, my one complaint has to do with the amazing ability Tom Stall's son possesses, out of nowhere, to dispatch with ruthless efficiency a couple of school bullies when he previously was seemingly fortunate (and a great deal uncertain) in catching a pop fly. I had no idea that the ability to mete out physical punishment was genetic. The movie works because the viewer is always left questioning events, actions and motivations for their history, engrossed in the need to understand what side of the line each character stands on... and then never define where that line is. But that might be just me; so many people have, afterall, disliked the movie so greatly it must have crossed a line somewhere... I just don't know where that is.
Kyle Gould is a University of Calgary Graduate in English devoutly trying to make the 25,000 dollar piece of parchment not just a glorified ink blot. Currently it would serve better as a Rorschach test. Feel free to throw some ink his way at email@example.com.