A year too late, but you know, better late etc. Every critic from J Rosenbaum to M Dargis (ya ya Dargis, I know but dammit, Rosenbaum loved it) raved about A History of Violence. Trustable Jai seemed to like it too. I meant to see it anyway, for the king if nothing else, but for some reason or the other it was the only movie that I didn't end up seeing in last year's nominee list. So went and borrowed it from Marylebone library this weekend (btw, the public libraries in this country are nowhere as big as the libraries of the States, but what they lack in space, they do seem to make up in quality, so I am not complaining yet) and it turned out to be a little, well, more than a little disappointing. Don't get me wrong, it is a really good movie and some excellent filmaking throughout but for moi it just didn't live upto expectations.
The basic problem, the way I see it, is with what the movie was meant to achieve. Is it about whether a man can turn over a new leaf, put his mobster past behind him, and live a completely different life? Is it about how violence begets violence and there's no way out of this endless cycle? If that's all it was, a thriller about one man's struggle to not let the ghosts of his past haunt him and his family, then A History of Violence is right on target. But hey, that's not really what I remember people (Cronenburg included if I am not mistaken) saying about it - It is supposedly a critique of the Bush administration's failed policies, it is about how violence lurks just beneath the surface of America's idyllic suburban homes, its about how little it takes to fire a shotgun. I am sorry, I must be a bit dense, but the movie did not tell me anything of this sort. You see, not all of us in America used to once belong to the mob, or married someone who did. So excuse me, but I really don't see how this movie holds a mirror to my face.
The saddest thing about the movie is that it holds so much promise in the first half only to squander it, shot after shot, through the second. Here's the gist of the story - Tom Stall, upstanding member of the community, loving husband and father, loved by all, becomes an overnight hero when he shoots and kills two men who attack his diner. Soon after, the east coast mob recognizes him as one of their own starts paying visits to Tom and his family, and our man has no choice but to go to Philly and kill a bunch of people he used to know in his mobster days in addition to the ones he shoots in his suburban lawn back in Millbrook. Where was the promise, you ask? Everywhere through the first 40 minutes actually - the deceptively simple Indiana town where you know something bad's going to happen, the first cheerleader sex scene, the way the son smart-talks his way out when confronted by the school bully, in the talk of monsters and pies, and right through the diner shooting, and when the son beats up the bully and that absolutely amazing scene in which Tom confronts his son, but pretty much right there was where it ended. The second the bodies pile up on the lawn and Joey says "I should have killed you back in Philly" you know its over. Might as well not see the rest of the movie. Unless you came in with different expectations.
Violence in America is not exclusive to the crime-ridden cities of the East Coast (ok, LA too if you insist) but we knew that already. Too well. Violence follows the mobster into suburban America and rears its head at the most inconvenient moment, but thats only expected, no? Where this movie could have gone, so easily considering how talented the crew is, is where only a select few have gone before - violence lies beneath the surface of every ordinary home, not just a seemingly ordinary one, not just the home of a man with a past. In refusing to do so, in not even willing to go the ambiguous route which personally would have been much more exciting, the movie exonerates you and me totally. We don't have history, you see, and so this is not our violence. Neither are we associated with anyone who has, and so, we do not have a stake in this. Which when you think about it is really not true.
PS: I am undecided about the last scene, yes, it was a little ambiguous and all but really thats the best he could come up with? I am not so sure. And please, do not get me started on the most talked about second sex scene. Violence and sexuality are closely related, so a lot of people think. All I can say is if you anyway discover you are married to this mobster guy and decide to stick with him, you don't have much of a choice, do you?
Update: After a bit of googling, I discovered why was it that I didn't see this movie earlier. Sepoy's review here. While I think he is being a little too harsh, agree with him on most things.