Oddly, I left the theater yesterday after seeing the new Cronenberg film A History of Violence on a bit of a giddy high. Strange for a film that’s ostensibly, or let’s face it, PRETENDS to be, wisely, “about” the “nature” of violence and blah blah. The truth is, Cronenberg is mischeviously disinterested in grandiose themes here…if History of Violence is “about” anything, it seems to be that everything is a form of mechanism, not least of all, its own narrative. It’s being released wide on a Friday by New Line, and one can almost, just almost, see what the studio was thinking: Cronenberg’s film can function as a conventional thriller, if you care to read it that way; and it seems like part of Cronenberg is asking you, even daring you, to do just that. And thus by buying into its incredibly disconcerting surface pleasures you become caught up in one of cinema’s best recent acts of trickery.
It would be simply unfair to give away too much of what occurs on a basic, flat narrative level, because watching it play out, in its troublingly plasticine workmanlike manner, just doesn’t feel like anything else…it doesn’t feel right. Something’s very off here, as if we’re watching some form of eXistenZ‘s “game,” yet we are never clued into why we’re here or where we are. All we’re left with are visual clues: Viggo Mortensen’s alternately soulful and dead eyes peering out from behind a face that shifts between baby-innocent and skeleton-hollow; Maria Bello’s form-fitting cheerleader outfit, held over from her teenage days for naughty sexcapades; a tastelessly prefab home steak dinner plate adorned with bright carrots and peas. Cronenberg isn’t after the same old “dark side of suburbia” here; what he’s done is far more delightfully insidious. The tone is precariously balanced; you often find yourself rooting for plot developments (the film is Cronenberg’s most involving and fluid storytelling since The Fly) even while being distracted by the sheer artificiality of it all.
A nice complement to Haneke’s Cache in its questioning of middle-class complacency, History of Violence deserves more consideration and more viewings to tease out its ambiguities than I can grant at this early stage. I can think of nothing more subversive in American film right now than this “product,” which will be challenging the codes of film watching even as its mainstream audiences laugh along with it. Oh, did I mention it’s really funny, too?