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Monday, April 24, 2006

A History Of Violence

If nothing else, David Cronenberg still has the power to put some prostheses and fake blood on people and gross out viewers to the point where they stand up and leave the film in tears. It worked on Debbie. Other than proving your desensitization to gore by watching those scenes complacently, I can't see much point in sitting through this feathery little piece of fluff.

I noted in the opening credits that the film is based on a graphic novel. "Uh oh... That can't be good." And indeed, you can think of this as something of a hyper-realistic Sin City. Everything is drawn in broad, exaggerated strokes. Viggo Mortensen and Maria Bello have a perfect, loving relationship that is hammered into your skull with an ice pick. Their son is a nice, gentle, sensitive lad. Their little girl is a cross between Shirley Temple and Heather O'Rourke in Poltergeist. Their small town has the cheery regulars down at the local diner. Of course this pastoral scenario is going to need some serious shaking up.

We have an early scene with the impossibly cute little moppet waking up screaming at the top of her lungs from a nightmare. Daddy wanders slowly into her room and calms her down for a while. Then young Sonny Jim meanders in to see what that noise was a while back and dispense his brand of familial care to little cupcake. After a while, Mom pokes her head in the door to make sure everything is okay. It's all such a series of staged entrances and introductions to the characters that I was rolling my eyes. But it gets better. You see, the little girl was frightened because of monsters hiding in the closet. Can you say "foreshadowing?" Can you shout it out loud and write it in letters three inches high on your script?

Then, what goes with violence? Why, sex of course! So we get a rather perverse little scene of Daddy and Mommy indulging in some graphic fantasy sex where she is dressed like an innocent little teenager. The scene goes on just long enough and just detailed enough to make you unnecessarily uncomfortable about watching, even though I think Cronenberg is honestly trying to make it seem very open, free-spirited, and loving (he has to help us with this understanding by adding some post-coital sweet talking to make sure we know just how MUCH they love each other). You see, he wants to contrast it later by showing that violence corrupts even the sacred and sweet bonds of marital physical closeness. It ain't a subtle comparison.

This bookending occurs all over the place. The son is a pacifist at school, allowing himself to be publicly humiliated rather than face down a bully. But as violence creeps into the family unit, he finds himself changed as well.

The plot gets its impetus from a seemingly random incident of violence where the father, Tom (Mortensen) ends up killing two very bad guys in an unambiguously virtuous and necessary act. He is thrust into the spotlight of media attention. Suddenly, more bad guys appear. Tom and his family are sucked into an inextricable whirlpool of violence, deceit, and mistrust.

I can't go any farther without giving away plot spoilers (although honestly you should be able to figure things out WELL before the script gets to each revelation). But at the end of the movie there is a scene that is so utterly bereft of storytelling skill it made me want to weep. I am sure the scriptwriter and director wanted to leave us with a thought-provoking open interpretation piece that would stimulate discussion and debate on the effects of (violence, deceit, mistrust... see above). I can visualize the thoughts going through their heads -- mostly remembering how cool it was when they read "The Lady Or The Tiger" in high school and then debated it in class.

But all they leave us with is an unfinished story and the only point that matters. The secrets about Tom's past are secondary and only a catalyst. The focus of the film is on his family and his relationship with his wife. And at the end, they leave us high and dry. They can't figure out themselves if redemption is possible or if the sins must be punished. So they leave it as an exercise for the reader.

I know there are those who will point out that this is the clever part. They will claim that I am a lazy viewer who wants to be spoon-fed a nice easy answer. They will say that it's heavy stuff and we should think about it long and hard. But I remain unconvinced. I think the filmmakers set up an important, central, solid story arc and didn't see it through to its finish. Which means that pretty much all that went before was just action-adventure time filler. And you know what? There are MUCH better action-adventure time fillers out there. Rent one of those. Not this.

Parents, my first sentence should have been warning enough. Don't let the kids be in the same room when this film is on. It has graphic depictions of things they shouldn't see. Probably things you shouldn't see either.

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