As the striking of the twentieth anniversary of the 1999 resounds, there’s been a revived interest in arguing that the bygone year in question might have represented the best twelve month span in the long history of cinema. That’s a notion Entertainment Weekly stumped for as the year was still unfolding, so I’ve had plenty of time to be not quite convinced. I might be more inclined to co-sign if more of the ’99-inclined film writers entered David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ, released twenty years ago this week, as the chief exhibit. Plenty of Cronenberg’s films are imperfect, and I’d argue a couple are outright bad, but in the undeclared battle between iconoclastic moviemaking Davids, I’ll always vigorously champion the Canadian with plenty of dried blood under his fingernails over Lynch. I have one last review of a Cronenberg film that hasn’t been carted over to this digital space, a consideration of A History of Violence, arguably his last truly impeccable work. This was written for my former online home.
The are certain things you need to be prepared for going into a David Cronenberg film: unflinching gore, tricky explorations of the ways in which sex and violence intersect and a deadpan approach to these things that, by itself, can be off-putting. Luckily, you usually need to be equally prepared to dissect a piece of art that is more complicated and nuanced than the average Hollywood Important FilmTM or even (especially?) the latest example of dark, edgy, filmic genius. Even when his films aren’t very good, they’re interesting and challenging. And A History of Violence is very good.
The film is based on a graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke that was issued through the marginally successful Paradox Press line of DC Comics. I’m not going to say much about the plot, because it’s definitely one of those films that benefits from knowing as little as possible going into it. For one thing, Cronenberg’s odd rhythms will probably work better for those not trying to anticipate when certain plot elements will kick in. According to our expectations of a typical narrative, very little happens in the first reel. There is character development and the establishment of plot points, but Cronenberg seems to be primarily laying the groundwork for the themes he’ll explore through the rest of the work: identity is pliable, violence begets more violence, sometimes we choose the lie because it’s preferable to the truth. There are moments in the first portion of the film that are very stiff and stilted, but I think that’s by design. Cronenberg wants us to see the rigidity, bloodlessness and finally fakery of the idyllic, standardized world that his characters live in. That’s not to say that Cronenberg is satirizing and condemning American small time life, an approach that is so overused that it’s become a sure sign of creative laziness. He’s simply pointing out that’s a falsely constructed reality; that doesn’t mean it may not be a better choice than the honest reality that eventually intrudes.
There’s actually not much violence in the film, basically a few relatively quick scenes. There are some gruesome sights, but they come and go quickly. Cronenberg doesn’t let his camera linger. There’s nothing gratuitous about the especially graphic moments, something Cronenberg has occasionally been guilty of in the past, which he basically acknowledged and satirized in what I think still stands as his best film (although, I’ll concede that this one might actual deserve that title—I need to think on it some more). Every moment, no matter how difficult to look at, makes sense with and contributes to what Cronenberg is trying to say about violence.
The movie gets extra credit for being the first to properly showcase Maria Bello. She’s long been the best actor in bad movies, the only actor maintaining some respectability in horrible movies, or the most neglected actor in mediocre movies in which other actors are celebrated to a baffling degree. Here Bello gets to really dig in and connects in moments both large and small.
And how did it take this long for Cronenberg to cast fellow space alien Bill Hurt in a film?