Outstreched arm

Saturday, October 01, 2005

A Brief History of Crime

As far as I can remember, I've only been in one physical fight, and this was in middle school. Obviously, I was on the receiving end of the beating, but it wasn't a very bad one. I deserved it, in the sense that I provoked a person I knew I shouldn't have. That doesn't justify the bully's action, of course, but it's not unreasonable to ask if there are interpersonal encounters we should view as hurricanes or earthquakes; I mean in the sense that we have precious little time to react, so deep analysis of motives and moral implications should be left for later. If you know the storm is coming, do you reason with it or get out of the way? What if you can't get out of the way? If you are attacked, do you defend yourself - and how much? How should you feel afterwards?

This is the most obvious problem presented in Peckinpah's Straw Dogs, an odd little story of an uber-nerd (Dustin Hoffman as an American math professor) who, with his trophy wife, settles down in the English country, rendered as a dirty, rotten wasteland of alcohol, ignorance, and sleaze. The locals eye his wife, and when they finally openly attack the couple, our hero emerges as a shaken but effective defender of his family. When all is done, there's an equally shaken but satisfied grin on his face - he took care of business, and damn if it didn't need taking care of.

David Cronenberg has emphasized that his new movie, A History of Violence, is in no way similar to Straw Dogs; a fair assessment, though there are shared elements. In a thematically important subplot, Jack, an all-American teenage weakling, is pushed by a bully, and finally pushes back, with a degree of violence that seems unnecessary at first (but think about it - only the likes of Arnie and Jean-Claude can get away with one-punches). After the fight, Jack doesn't openly gloat but the audience does, and Jack certainly doesn't regret it. "He was a jerk," he says of the bully, "this was the best thing that could have happened to him." Justifying violence or being honest about a situation that's simply without an outcome both satisfying and peaceful?

Jack's family becomes the subject of national news when his father, the corn-fed superdad Tom (Viggo Mortenssen) disturbs the quaintness of their farming hometown by shooting, with eyebrow-raising effectiveness, two desperate and sadistic dudes who attempt to rob his coffee shop. This raises the eyebrows of the local sheriff, but more importantly, also those of a mob boss from Philadelphia who sends some thugs down to Anytown, USA to get Tom, who, it turns out, may be a long-disappeared criminal. Poor Tom now has to protect his family, but also explain why these men are so sure of his 'real' identity. Questions of plausability are now raised both within the movie and by the movie; this is a slightly 'meta' work.

So, either Tom is a ruthless killer who turned his life around so much that his new existence is an angelically syrupy one, or he is an honest, loving man who happens to perfectly resemble "Crazy Joey" (the man they peg him as) both in appearance and, as Ed Harris, a delightfully played thug, puts it, in "being so good at killing people." Here the movie betrays its comic-book origins. I haven't read the comic this was (loosely) based on, but I get the feeling that it was more bombastic in its delivery of the answer to our conundrum.

Cronenberg is rarely so obviously dramatic in matters of plotting; he prefers to hit the gut with visuals. Here, they are reminiscent of Hitchcock's Birds in their brief matter-of-factness. They are symmetrical and interpolated with equally symmetrical sex scenes. Good ones, too. Maybe it's just me, but it's been a while since I've seen a believable, desirable, uncumbered sex act on the screen - well, this applies to the first sexual encounter in the film, in any case. The second is a rape scene, but one problematic and vacillating like the rest of the movie. By the way, don't think that I consider this a problem necessarily. I liked Eyes Wide Shut a lot - a movie whose only resolution consists of the word 'fuck' in the bare infinitive.

Much like Spider and Dead Ringers, this film is directed in Cronenberg's deceptively simple style. Individual scenes resonate more than story arcs, and there's a goofily enjoyable scene or two - most notably, William Hurt in a crucial role played with the kind of comic sensibility inappropriate both for this Thespian and his on-screen character; but it works, mate. Viggo plays Tom as a lullingly safe man and this makes the accusations raised against him not entirely convincing; again, if he's Mr. Dad, why are violent acts he's forced to commit so quick and precise? If, on the other hand, he's an experienced ruffian, how could he possibly bottle it so well for so long?

My friend Christa recently sent me a writing assignment she did where the task was to "burn a bridge", i.e. have something happen between characters that changes their relationship forever. A History of Violence features many such moments and never really resolves them. Can they even be resolved? Are there self-contained, perfectly justifiable acts of violence at all, or do extreme measures solve problems only to start something that will eventually become a bigger problem?

Hey, you tell me.

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