Tuesday, January 03, 2006

GOOD-BAD BUT HE’S NOT EVIL. In A History of Violence, a gentle man living in smalltown America turns out to have a violent past, which he has to settle with violence. This is classic American movie stuff -- Out of the Past, Shane, and Unforgiven come speedily to mind. What might David Cronenberg have to add?

He subtracts more than he adds. The biggest change is in the central character. His forebears in the genre suffered qualms, waxed philosophical. Tom doesn’t do that. He isn’t quite a cypher, but moral anguish isn’t part of his makeup. He isn’t obviously tortured by the past --when he tries to talk to his wife about it, he doesn’t have much to say. At first I thought he might just be inarticulate – a doer, not a talker. It turns out there isn’t anything to talk about. His second life is the one he wants: his first life he thought he’d "killed," When he can’t easily turn the past away, he goes back to do the job right.

In fact, the old Joey and the new Tom are very similar – taciturn, observant, economical with his emotions and gestures. The good one’s voice, we find out, is slightly airier than the other one’s. I’ve been thinking about that a while. Is this a sign of enforced gentility – like a hard man being gentle around children? Or is it just as much acting as he’s capable of? (The character, not Viggo Mortensen, who is really, really good.)

Tom’s only problem, besides the obvious, is his family. They aren’t cooperating. In fact, they’re starting to challenge him. You can guess how he might react to that, though it’s shocking when he does.

There’s a lot going on at the edges that I still haven’t got straight. All the other bad men are unmistakable – when they come onscreen, even in the elliptical beginning, you get a bad feeling about them. Much is made of the moment when the serial killers stare down the local bully, a poser out of John Hughes. Real evil is heavy. So how did Joey get away with his act for so long? Is there some way in which he has really changed? If he hasn’t, does it matter, so long as he has the will and opportunity to be good?

I honestly don’t know whether Cronenberg missed an opportunity to make things clearer, or if, in his estimation, it just doesn’t get any clearer than that. What do you guys think?

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