In Cold Blood
In his latest film, famed director David Cronenberg examines the nature of violence.
Thursday, September 29, 2005
The title of David Cronenberg’s adaptation of the graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke is open to interpretation. Is it the police term describing a perp with a bloody past? An attempt to explain the causes and development of violent behavior? Or an evocation of history in general—for what history isn’t one of violence? The film answers to each of these definitions, though with such cold-blooded efficiency and cryptic detachment, it may evoke more admiration than pleasure.
That’s partly because this is the director’s most generic movie. But what genre, exactly? Cronenberg himself has suggested a John Ford Western, and indeed History acts out the perennial conflict between independence and conformity, between aggressive anarchy and domestic tranquility, that has sparked Westerns from Stagecoach to Unforgiven. But John Ford? Maybe David Lynch, or Luis Buñuel—two directors as entomologically minded as Cronenberg.
A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE ( * * * )
Directed by David Cronenberg.
Starring Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, Ed Harris and William Hurt.
(R, 95 mins) At the Century Cinemas Del Monte Center, Northridge Cinemas.
Not that there are any actual insects on screen—maybe a first for a director whose résumé includes The Fly, Spider, and M. Butterfly. Unless you include the human kind, like the two killers at the start of the film whose history of violence litters their wake. Contrasting with their gelid ruthlessness is the homespun decency of Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen, whose close-ups tell a violent story in themselves), proprietor of a diner in rustic Millbrook, Indiana. He wears an apron; his lawyer wife, Edie (Maria Bello), wears the pants in the family. But life is good and wholesome—though their teenage son is bored stiff and can’t wait to get out of town.
Their idyllic life changes when our two killers enter the diner, forcing Tom’s history of violence to begin. Put in a tough spot, he displays a surprising talent, his neighbors call him a hero, and news crews pursue him. More troubling, an ominous scarred stranger (Ed Harris) insists he knows him. Meanwhile, Tom no longer knows himself, and his nascent history of violence threatens to turn into his fate.
Fans of Sin City or The Road to Perdition or the Wagner and Locke original might not recognize History as an adaptation of a graphic novel. Except for Ed Harris’s Dick Tracy–like black suit and a couple of inky settings later in the film, it shuns such garishness, and Cronenberg shoots his story, or history, with the flat remorselessness of a documentary. He regards his subject with scientific detachment. But film favors violence over history, and the brief explosions of blood and pulp are a relief from the drab passages surrounding them. Even the sex is better. Before, Tom and Edie engage in innocent role-playing; afterward, they ravish each other like arachnids or jungle animals.
Maybe that’s why violence always trumps history. It’s a lot more fun. Cronenberg subtly traces violence to its origins in Cain and Abel and even posits an ambiguous hope for reconciliation. But in the end, it’s the violence that people will remember.