TORONTO—Watching the North American premiere of David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence with a hometown crowd from the upper balcony of the cavernously vertical Roy Thomson Hall was the closest the Toronto International Film Festival is likely to come to providing a hockey game atmosphere. “Wow, you’re a rowdy audience,” festival topper Piers Handling exclaimed—although most of the anticipatory screams were for Viggo Mortensen. Still, the minister of culture was on hand to laud Toronto as “one of the top two [film festivals] in the world, second only to Cannes” and introduce the director The Toronto Star had that morning hailed as “a true Canadian artist.” “We might be second to Cannes,” Cronenberg noted, “but we know this is the only screening that counts.” Indeed, where the Cannes jury snubbed A History of Violence as too pop, the Canadian audience responded viscerally—laughing at Cronenberg’s adroitly timed jokes and spontaneously applauding his artfully choreographed outbursts of righteous mayhem, before subsiding into shocked silence.
A History of Violence is deeply involving. Still, with its Hitchcockian “wrong man” theme and continual implication of the viewer, it’s as coolly distanced as its title would suggest. In the film’s first minute a scarily hard-bitten killer walks on camera and perfects the flat perspective by straightening a chair. A work for hire, as well as Cronenberg’s biggest budget ever, freely adapted by Josh Olson from John Wagner and Vince Locke’s graphic novel, A History of Violence manages to have its cake and eat it—impersonating an action flick in its staccato mayhem while questioning these violent attractions every step of the way.
Cued by Howard Shore’s unobtrusive western score, A History of Violence illustrates, as its title suggests, the return of the repressed—or, if you prefer, the vicissitudes of an overdetermined superhero destiny. A pair of cartoonishly chiseled normals (Viggo Mortensen and Maria Bello) live with their CGI-perfect children in a Disneyland-idyllic small town that might have been designed for the game players of Cronenberg’s eXistenZ. In one romantic scene, Mortensen and Bello pretend to be teenagers; in their next tryst, they no longer know who they are. In between, the couple and their kids have been irrationally terrorized by a series of criminals, most impressively Ed Harris’s mutilated gangster.
Tense and atmospheric, with a real sense of animal menace, A History of Violence is a hyper-real version of an early-’50s B movie nightmare—albeit one where the narrative delicately blurs dream and reality, the performances slyly merge acting with role-playing, the location feels like a set, and blood always oozes from lovingly contrived prosthetic injuries. Each lie builds on another. Innocuous interaction is rife with hints to turbulent inner lives and violent fantasies. Innocent scenes are booby-trapped to explode on a second viewing. One child is shot; another wakes up screaming to be told by her father that “there’s no such thing as monsters.”
It’s the monsters that keep A History of Violence from projecting a world as hermetic as the madman’s mind in Cronenberg’s misappreciated Spider. The violence is amazingly staged and increasingly cathartic. But whether directed at high school bullies or cold-blooded killers, it never fails to rebound uncomfortably on the spectator. Cronenberg’s tone is too disconcertingly dry to be ironic and too scary to register as absurd. By the time William Hurt appears as a godfather from the City of Brotherly Love,
A History of Violence has succeeded in incriminating virtually all of its characters in its particular “history,” not to mention the audience (and maybe the species too). Only in the light of that recognition can Superman return to Smallville and seek his place at the table.