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A History Of Violence
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A History Of Violence

cast: Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, Ed Harris, William Hurt, and Peter MacNeill

director: David Cronenberg

96 minutes (18) 2005
widescreen ratio 1.85:1
EIV DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 6/10
reviewed by Steve Aylett
Most of David Cronenberg's movies are muted comedies of extremity; the more muted the better. Videodrome is funnier than eXistenZ. Scanners is funnier than Naked Lunch. But a whole other layer of comedy is added when we hear Cronenberg talking about what he intended by his movies. Either he's lying when he makes such statements - having some ironic fun at our expense - or he means it but is not skilled enough to achieve what he intended.

Contrary to Cronenberg's suggestions, the film A History Of Violence does not convey the brutality of violence, or ask questions about its necessity, or even its effects on family. It conveys (to some extent) the damage done by lies, it asks questions about dishonesty's necessity and its effects on family. The family in question - a bland husband, a perfect wife and a couple of spooky, rubberised children - stew in their own plastic long enough for the audience to want something (anything) to happen to them. This is a technique first deployed in Hitchcock's The Birds, where we are given almost an hour of evidence that the main characters are made of wood - then, without even a likely psycho on the horizon, the birds seem conjured by our very desperation to disassemble the blandness on screen. In HOV when mild mannered Viggo Mortensen proves himself an action hero we're behind him, partly because we know the guys he killed are such bad guys, but also because we're desperate for anything to happen in a town apparently populated by the standing dead.

One of Cronenberg's stated strategies is to make us complicit in the violence (as with most violent movies) and in fact it does that. And, well, that's just about it. The movie shows that most of the major problems faced by the characters are solved by violence, and though slightly less balletic than in many movies, the violence is still very stylised. Brief shots of the bad guys breathing blood after being shot in the face do nothing. If a stray bullet had done this to the wife, and we had stayed with her for another messy couple of hours as she died, it might have worked. As it is, it's just a western, with the added complication that some of the characters take a while to realise this.

Very few films put across the impact of irreversible ruin. A rare example is the end of Requiem For A Dream. We have to care about the people who are killed, believe they're being killed or mutilated and believe its absolute irreversibility. We could do with feeling some of the effect that the act of killing can have on the killer - even Road To Perdition, a generally flat film with a similar theme and structure to HOV, gave a twinge of that by the end. As with most Cronenberg movies, the reaction to HOV is, 'cool gore!' (And a look at the effects extras on the DVD reaffirms that Cronenberg & Co enjoy rigging up the old fake guts and prosthetic dangling jaws). The biggest shock in the movie is seeing William Hurt actually doing some acting. I believe his face was frozen into immobility during a puzzled reaction shot in Altered States, and has only just freed up. Pretty boy Viggo Mortensen is good at showing the relapse from born-again family man to steel-eyed hitman. Maria Bello makes 'What?' sexy. Ed Harris gives the movie the comicbook performance it deserves. The DVD includes another of Cronenberg's excellent commentaries, very precise about storytelling and the reasons for certain details.

This is a fun, kinetic western/ gangster movie in which we root for the flawed hero and there are some points about lies and hypocrisy. The moral seems to be, be honest about your violence and the good it can do. I think Cronenberg should be honest about the films he makes.

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