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Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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More dark David

If Dogville had walls, we’d have A History of Violence. Lars von Trier’s Brechtian posturing could be swept up in a single metaphor; David Cronenberg’s deceptive Millbrook, Ind., is, by comparison, an anthill of American dreams and insecurities.

The masterful opening shot signals the film’s deft style. Cronenberg tucks his opening credits all over a roadside motel, while two nameless baddies mosey around. It’s difficult to overstate the menace and terror of the scene, highlighted by the complete lack of a musical score (save the noontime buzzing of Midwestern insects).

When they stumble into Tom Stall’s (Viggo Mortensen) Millbrook diner for some quick raping and pillaging, they are swiftly killed by Stall, who soon finds himself a national hero. Then some sketchy mob guys from Philly, led by glass-eyed Ed Harris, show up, saying that Tom is actually a terrific killer named Joey Cusack and they have some unfinished business.

Josh Olson’s screenplay (taken from the graphic novel) is smart, but Cronenberg elevates it to something completely unnerving. The film’s title has sharp, multiple meanings – the literal implications of Tom’s history of violence, violence as a disease with a case history and recording the effects of violent acts. Throw in a corny subplot about Tom’s son, Jack (Ashton Holmes) being bullied around at school, and it seems like an obvious father/son arc.

Yet Cronenberg offers a number of powerful scenes that trace the fallout of Tom’s actions. At the beginning of the film, he and his wife, Edie (Maria Bello), engage in one of the most unconventional sex scenes I’ve ever seen in a major studio film – cunnilingus, and then some. It’s something out of a Daniel Crowder column.

But after the film’s central murder, there’s another sex scene in a stairwell. A little bit of blood and a lot of scratching, all awkwardly and claustrophobically filmed, capped off by a pair of unforgettable shots – Tom sleeping on the couch, Edie hunched over with cuts on her back. The tightrope between passion and rape has rarely been walked so disturbingly.

A History of Violence is obsessed with artifice, but never in a way as obvious as Dogville or even Mulholland Dr. The editing and look of the film convey this obvious sense of the ominous and uncomfortable. For many interior scenes, Cronenberg utilizes a single light source that crashes onto the characters. There’s a yellow light that colors a tense locker room scuffle between Jack and the jockish Bobby Jordan (played by the almost perfectly named Kyle Schmid). Many scenes in the Stall home are illuminated only by a faint blue.

Howard Shore’s score seems better suited for, shit, I don’t know, Just Like Heaven. Between soft horns – which are imbued with a knowing cynicism when placed against so many off-kilter scenes – are long stretches of silence that cut together uncomfortably. My date to the film noted that it was like a television show in terms of its plot, which is partially true, but her criticism points more to the uneven pace and flow of the film. Cronenberg is indulging in the Hollywood-preferred style but also unmasking its limitations. The result is a terribly, and purposefully, awkward rhythm.

I’ve avoided spoiling the predictable twists of the film on purpose, since part of the fun is seeing how Cronenberg gets to those moments. I do have to warn you that yes, that is William Hurt at the end of the film, looking uncannily like Will Ferrell’s version of James Lipton.

Cronenberg glorifies small-town life in Millbrook (a fictional town; fittingly, the movie was filmed in Cronenberg’s native Toronto), but the film is not about the dark secrets of that lifestyle, like his contemporary David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. Judging from the poignant final shot, Cronenberg doesn’t even want to denounce the American dream; he’s just sad that it’s never as perfect as Norman Rockwell made it seem. Millbrook, from Tom’s daughter all the way to the sheriff, justifies and excuses vengeance in favor of the status quo.

Between the two dark Davids, Cronenberg has always been obsessed with the body, while Lynch messed with your mind. Despite the pleasantries of Millbrook, Cronenberg never hesitates to focus on the moments of gruesome violence – the jawbone peering through the skin, the bloody mess where there once was a nose, the crooked look of a snapped neck. The disfigurments are the only anomalies in A History of Violence, which exposes the most honorable of American traditions – heroism – and stabs it in the foot.4

Communication senior Kyle Smith is the PLAY film columnist. He can be reached at [email protected].

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More dark David