October 11, 2005

Sex & Violence: Offseason Filler Edition

The Red Sox, Yankees and Braves have been vanquished from the playoffs, effectively eliminating all the compelling post-season storylines for us east coast types. To fill valuable column inches, the Triple Play crew presents our inaugural offseason movie review, the first of however many we have to do before MLB announces an owner for the Nats.

Today's review:
A History of Violence

Matt Watson
- 3 Baseballs

The opening scene in A History of Violence sets the tone from the very start. We see two very bad men and the very bad things they’re capable of. We don’t know anything about them, other than the fact that you don’t want to run into them. This is immediately juxtaposed with our introduction to the Stall family and their idyllic country life and with that stark comparison the tone is set for the rest of the film.

Viggo Mortenson plays Tom Stall, a quiet, small town, family man. He runs the local diner, knows all the patrons by name, and seems like a good decent man. Tom’s wife Edie, played by Maria Bello, shares his unassuming country life along with their teenage son (Ashton Holmes) and their young daughter (Heidi Hayes). Their existence is painted like a Norman Rockwell painting, all warm hues and kindly characters. There’s a little spice to the mix as seen by Maria Bello’s turn in her high school cheerleader outfit, and their son is having trouble with the local bully but other than that things are almost perfect for the Stalls.

That of course has to change and when our two very bad men from the opening scene come calling at the diner all hell breaks loose. When the lives of his employees and customers are threatened, Tom acts quickly and decisively and the results are deadly.

With all the publicity from the incident Tom surfaces on the radar of Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris), another very bad man from Philadelphia. He’s got an intimidating black sedan, two body guards, a scarred face, and a belief that he and Tom share a past. Is Tom who he says he is? Does he have a secret that he’s been hiding for twenty years? And as Fogarty says, why is Tom so good at killing people?

The movie has some very good scenes, particularly the ones with Ed Harris and Ashton Holmes. There is also a wonderful cameo by William Hurt that is worth the price of admission alone. Occasionally the dialogue is unintentionally funny but the film as a whole moves along and there are several good tension builders that keep the audience hooked.

Director David Cronenberg does a very good job of playing the idea of what defines a man. What counts more, our present or our past? Can we be forgiven for our sins or are they going to haunt us forever? For Tom Stall these are questions that have to be answered and the audience is curious too. We play witness to Edie’s struggle as her entire world flips upside down. We play witness to Tom’s struggle to prove he is the man his wife married. In the end we find out Tom is both. There are two sides to every person and sometimes they are forced to use one to save the other. If Tom wasn’t the man he was he and his customers would have never made it out of the diner alive. If Tom wasn’t the man he was Tom’s son might not have found out what type of man he is. The audience has to ask what counts more, a history of violence or a future of possibility.

Nate responds: 2 baseballs

Much of the preliminary publicity surrounding A History of Violence has focused on what reviewers have labeled "gratuitous" sex and violence. But complaints about excessive explicit imagery are more properly understood as criticisms of badly plotted sex and violence. Quentin Tarantino has made an entire career out of taking sex and violence beyond their logical extremes, but to attack any of it as gratuitous is to misunderstand his movies.

In this film however, some of the explicit elements are gratuitous; not because they are unnecessary, but because they become a sloppy shorthand for absent character development. A History of Violence was adapted from the graphic novel of the same name, and retains many of that genre's signature elements. Edie Stall is every man's fantasy as the devoted wife and mother who is still willing and able to wear her high school cheerleading uniform for a night of raunchy sex with hubby. The Stall's son Jack is a perfect stand-in for your average graphic novel reader, the sarcastic, sensitive high schooler pushed to the breaking point by a bully so generic it's a wonder he wasn't named Biff.

Ideally, the central conflict of the movie would be the tension of a family forced to confront and find a way to relate to the man they never really knew. But these characters are too one-demensional to allow for that kind of growth. The sexy wife, the sarcastic teenager and the cute daughter are archetypes, and archetypes don't do change. Instead, what we get is essentially two movies welded at the middle, the idyllic Stall family meets the post-modern Stall family, a homicidal Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?

That said, A History of Violence contains some engaging performances and entertaining set-pieces, not the least Jack Stall's final showdown with his high school tormentor and William Hurt's scene stealing performance as a Philadelphia mobster. The film had the potential to be a thought-provoking meditation on past and responsibility, but David Cronenberg failed to get behind the graphic novel theatrics and into the hearts of the characters.

1 comment:

Basil said...

Excellent idea!

My last form of protest was threatened to burn down the O's Warehouse (or something) until a Nats' TV deal was finally reached. Of course, look where that got us.