I generally get where critics are coming from, even if I disagree with their assessments. But there was one movie this year whose reviews still having me scratching my head, and now that it’s figuring into the Awards picture, I’ll let my lone-voice-in-the-wilderness (or my revealing-my-ignorance) riff out into the ether and see if anyone else agrees or can at least explain what I apparently missed. The movie: David Cronenberg’s “A History of Violence,” AKA “A History in Which the 62-Year-Old Auteur Proves He’s All Grown Up Because He Doesn’t Display Any Disfigured Sexual Organs For Once, but He Does Display William Hurt, Which Arguably is Worse.”
The movie opens with these two really wicked evil bad guys who just kind of kill people because that’s their gig. They wind up in a small Indiana town where Viggo Mortensen runs a kindly diner — it has even installed a couple sharing a sundae for what seems in perpetuity. The people-killers are nonetheless unmoved, ready to go all Tarantino in the diner — again, that’s just how they roll — but Viggo goes pre-emptively Jedi-Knight on them and their larynxes are left all over the floor. Can’t say they didn’t have it coming.
So, he’s a local hero, but before something like this would’ve seemed to have had the chance to enter the national news cycle (and then, only on a minor level), Ed Harris comes tooling into town, having driven from Pennsylvania to small-town Indiana curious to have a word with Viggo (maybe Ed read about it on what our leaders call the Internets; maybe that’s how Ed spends all his time, but looking at him, I’m guessing not). (Maybe this is being picky, but if Cronenberg’s going into gritty realism mode, I’m going to wear my gritty realism cap while watching.)
So Ed’s enjoying making everyone at the diner really uncomfortable by suggesting that Viggo is someone other than who he says he is — specifically, a Phillie gangsta that, back in the day, transformed Ed Harris’s mug into the Picasso it is today. Viggo, laconic with everything but his fists, drawls that he don’t know what Ed Harris is talkin’ about. This nonetheless piques the curiosity of Viggo’s wife, Maria Bello, who it’s been established got married later than most small-town Hoosiers do.
Ed messes with Viggo & family’s minds a little longer — at one point, Viggo sees Ed’s limo shimmy through town and then runs all the way to his home. (We don’t know how far it is, but we know it’s far enough that running was kind of a dumb, movie-style thing to do rather than just hopping in his truck and high-tailing it on home.) The mind games Ed’s playing with Viggo would be really intimidating — if Viggo weren’t who Ed says he is — but, let’s face it (SPOILER ALERT RIGHT NOW!), there’s no way that’s how this thing is going to shake out. Viggo’s a guy with secrets, that should be apparent to everyone. So Ed really shouldn’t be doing this cock-of-the-walk act, especially since he knows just what happened to the last guys who tried to get rough with Viggo.
And then comes the scene where Ed REALLY shouldn’t have been doing the cock-of-the-walk act, and there are bodies everywhere, and more larynxes displaced, and even Viggo’s wussy son has taken a guy out. And here, apparently, comes the movie’s big statement about violence begetting violence or somehow, inside we’re all just feral weasles just itching to tear each other up or something: Viggo’s wussy son gives what-for to a longtime bully; Viggo and Bello get all hot and bothered on the staircase.
(Aside: There’s just some intrinsic quality about Viggo and Bello that, you don’t even have to be in the room with them, you can just see it (or sniff it) on screen, but you get the sense that, well, their approach to hygiene may be, shall-we-say, European. So their sex scenes together have a certain, um, pungency to them that gets you to worrying about how the crew members shot them without air filters.)
So anyway, Viggo’s got to go resolve something (and you’ve probably figured out what that means in this movie) with his big-time Phillie mobster brother, who is played by William Hurt. About 15 years ago, I came up with a William Hurt impression: It basically involves lifting your head up off your shoulders and letting it fly back, as if it were suddenly unmoored from the laws of gravity. Raised eyebrows, dully popping eyes and muttering accompany the gesture. I haven’t really had to alter this impression in the years since. So Viggo’s visiting brother Bill and they’ve got issues and suddenly, this grim little meditation on the enduring legacy of violence has become this Grand Guignol comedy with Hurt overacting as if he’s getting paid by the gesture. And while I was grateful the film had sort of slipped out of self-important mode, I was equally distressed to watch it slip into pulpy, self-parody mode. Tonal shifts in movies are preciously tricky things, and this one just made me laugh and not in what I felt was a good way.
More mayhem, and then Viggo goes home. And the whole family has adopted that laconic thing. The end.
Like I said, I don’t know exactly what I missed, or maybe people took the whole legacy-of-larynx-ripping thing more seriously than I did, or maybe it’s just that Cronenberg’s an auteur, dammit, so critics like his movies. (OK, if it’s that, I get it. I’ve been guilty of that in the past.) I’m not saying the film’s bad (although I kinda thought it was), just that the praise was way out of line with its virtues.
So prove me wrong.