Tuesday, October 03, 2006

A History of Violence

Until about a week ago, my exposure to the world of 'graphic novels' was limited to a single solitary viewing of the excellent 'Sin City'. Recently however, it seems any film I watch has a chance of being adapted from this shady source material... now, I may have been generalising in my 'V for Vendetta' review when I claimed that graphic novels were weightier than comic books, with more adult themes of emotional resonance, but after a viewing of 'A History of Violence', also sourced from a graphic novel, I'm not going to be changing my mind any time soon!

Laden with strong performances from all the central players, and some excellent supporting turns from Ed Harris and William Hurt, 'A History of Violence' is a tale of a man's identity, and his struggle with the truth of his origins. It asks important questions: "is a person defined by their past?" "can people change?" "is the truth always important?" "is it better to fight or flee?". This is not the stuff of Superman Returns...

Viggo Mortensen is believable as Tom Stall, the mild-mannered owner of a small town diner, who's family life is literally turned upside down by a random encounter with a couple of 'the bad men'. This encounter has a dramatic effect on Tom, and while Mortensen does okay with the very meaty role, I get the feeling that a better actor would have really devoured the material. This means that the real star turn in this one is from Maria Bello, playing Tom's serenely settled wife. Her world suddenly shifts and she is plunged into insecurity and doubt, but Bello manages to portray this transformation from peaceful calm to emotional turmoil in confident manner. One to watch.

Ed Harris is truly menacing in this one, and William Hurt has never been this evil! But that's the power of David Cronenberg, the man who wrote 'Videodrome' and directed 'Crash', (not the Sandra Bullock version) 'The Fly' and 'The Dead Zone'. This man has a body of work that could make you shiver, but he should not be mistaken simply for a purveyor of schlock monster movies - 'Existenz' alone should be evidence of this. If more evidence was needed however, it is on display in 'A History of Violence'.

Although I have a sneaky suspicion that directors adapt graphic novels because it saves them from boring storyboarding sessions, every shot in 'A History of Violence' is visually arresting. Vivid colours are used to great effect in this one, emphasizing the emotions on display in each scene, and at times effectively isolating the central character, reinforcing his predicament. Cronenberg has to take some credit for these techniques. Also, he manages to elicit performances from his cast which are generally quite balanced, and in many cases, exceptional.

I should also point out that in the midst of this soberly dramatic tale of a man struggling with his own identity, and coping with his wife and kids in the process, Cronenberg has stamped a 'A History of Violence' with some of his trademarks, which I would associate more readily with his earlier works. The violence, when it assaults the screen, is shocking and extreme. We are left in no doubt as to the trauma inflicted on it's victims, be they the ones on the receiving end, or simply witnesses, like ourselves. In addition, there are a number of sex scenes which by Hollywood standards would have to be called 'graphic'... and a couple of which, by anyone's standards, would be called 'kinky'! (I never saw a scene like that in Calvin and Hobbes)

On balance, 'A History of Violence' is worth watching. It looks great, it's a well acted story with a beginning, middle and an end. The characters are believable and the pace of the action, while at times sluggish, is generally well managed by Cronenberg. I imagine that this movie has raised his stock no end (enough to win him a Palme d'Or nomination) and it's going to be very interesting to see what he'll do next.

Verdict: Quality film-making. Above average, but not mind-blowing.
Result: 7/10

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