A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 589 – A History of Violence

A History of Violence – October 10th, 2011

This is yet another good example of an exceptionally made movie that doesn’t interest me in the least. It’s simply not my taste, no matter how well done it is. Sort of like how I mostly prefer sculptures to paintings. It’s not a question of the skill involved in creating the piece of art in front of me. It’s a question of personal preference and interest. It’s frustrating at times, because technically speaking, I spent this evening watching a good movie. But subjectively speaking, I didn’t enjoy that time. I didn’t actively dislike it either, but when I spend an hour and a half watching something I’m not interested in and not particularly enjoying that feels like time not well spent. And I can’t even really complain about it. So what do I say in a review? This movie didn’t capture my interest but you might want to see it anyhow?

This is actually a problem I have with reviews as a concept. I certainly don’t think that every movie is a great movie just waiting for the right reviewer, but at the same time I think that some genuinely good movies (and books and plays and television shows and so on and so forth) will end up being reviewed poorly by someone who simply didn’t enjoy it because it’s not to their taste. I can’t honestly claim to be a movie snob, what with my adoration of Sharks in Venice, but I can recognize the difference between a good movie and a bad movie (and a good-bad movie and a bad-bad movie). This is a good movie. This is a movie full of impeccable acting and excellent writing and deftly handled direction. I just wasn’t interested.

I’m not sure entirely why this specific movie didn’t interest me. It’s the same thing as No Country for Old Men. Why not that movie? I liked The Limey quite a lot, and I’ve got to say it’s not that far off from this and No Country for Old Men in terms of general tone. There’s a lot of quiet introspective bits and meditation on the nature of violence and its consequences and the lives of the people involved. It’s not just that I liked the lead actor better. I mean, Terrance Stamp is fantastic, but I like Viggo Mortensen too, and he was fantastic here. Perhaps it’s that this was more of a character study than a story. There are story elements involved, but it seems to me that the point of the movie isn’t the specific story and the events that occur in it, but how those events affect the main character and how he relates to the world.

The movie centers around a man named Tom Stall. I would say that it focuses around him and his family except the family focus is all directly related to Tom’s actions near the beginning and the revelations said actions bring. What Tom does and who he is and was affect his wife and his children, but they themselves are not the focus. It’s all Tom and the ripples he causes. Because Tom efficiently and ruthlessly took down two assailants who attacked him and his staff at the diner he owned, as if he knew what we has doing, despite his mild mannered midwestern family man persona. What’s interesting to me about this movie is that until about a third of the way in, or maybe as much as half of the way in, it’s still up in the air exactly what this means. Serious men in a big black car show up when Tom’s face becomes nationally known. They think he’s someone they know. Someone with a different name and a different past. And he tells them he’s not. It’s a case of mistaken identity. And until a point where it’s made clear whether or not he’s telling the truth? It doesn’t really matter.

I almost think I’d have liked it better if the story had left it up in the air. If the point hadn’t been “is he or isn’t he” but rather “whether he is or not, these things happened”. Because once you know, that changes things. It becomes less of a meditation on the nature of violence and its impact on people, which I could find very interesting, and pulls it very much into the specific character study of Tom. Unfortunately, it gives us very little of his actual background. Apparently the source material has a good deal more background for him and I might actually look that up and check it out. As it stands, it hovers a bit between character study and ensemble. I want the ensemble, but it doesn’t give it to me. I want the character background if it’s a study we’re getting and it doesn’t give me that either. It’s a snapshot of a turning point in a man’s life and it just doesn’t do it for me.

In case you care about such things, I’m about to spoil the mystery. Some ways into the movie, after Tom has killed the two assailants in the diner and dealt with numerous threats to his family, we learn that yes indeed, Tom Stall is hiding a very nasty path. He’s from Philadelphia. He has mob ties. His older brother is still in the mob. His real name is Joey Cusack and when he left the mob and left Philly he took a new name and started a new life and tried to leave his violence in the past. Clearly that only worked so long as he never had to defend himself or anyone else. When called on to deal with a dangerous situation he went right back to the violence he’d known for years. And once you know this about him? Once you know that he has this horrible past where he did terrible things it changes the whole scenario. Now he has to go to Philadelphia and confront his brother and make sure no one ever threatens his family again. And this is why I say it isn’t about Tom and his family in the midwest and how violence affects them. It is about him and how he copes with being the violent person he used to be after years and years without it.

Were I writing academically I’d probably spend some time focusing on how the people around Tom – who’ve always known him to be a fairly peaceful and kind person – are affected. Because that’s an important part of the movie’s point. His son, who is routinely picked on by some of the school’s bullies, takes his father’s actions as permission to fight back, breaking another boy’s nose in the process. His wife distances herself but also finds herself drawn to him even as she’s disgusted by him and herself for being drawn. People in town celebrate Tom’s actions while he is understandably worried by them. It’s clearly a major theme. The thing is, because it comes off as more of a character study to me, I’m just not inclined to delve too deeply into the reactions of others because we never really get to know them otherwise. The one person we get a little more depth from is Tom’s wife, Edie, played by Maria Bello. And she is excellent in the role. Still even there we see her not on her own, but always in relation to Tom.

I’m not saying that any of this is bad. I’m just saying that I think it might be part of what kept me from getting invested in the movie, regardless of how well it was made. And that might not hold true for other people. As I said in the beginning, it’s a matter of personal preferences. So while I can watch this and appreciate the acting and the writing and the directing and the cinematography and everything about it that was so well done, that doesn’t mean I’m going to like it. And I maintain that that’s a valid reaction to a movie. A movie doesn’t have to be good for me to enjoy it, but likewise it doesn’t have to be bad for me not to.

October 10, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment

A History of Violence

October 10, 2011

A History of Violence

I bought this movie for a couple reasons. It had a cool looking preview with Vigo Mortensen and Ed Harris. It’s based on a comic book (and and as you know I buy everything that’s based on a comic book, be it worth while or not.) And as was often the case it was pre-viewed at the Blockbuster where I worked so I figured well, why not? As we watched the opening credits I was interested to see that it was directed by David Cronenberg, famous for making great horror movies in the eighties like the re-make of The Fly, Scanners and Videodrome. I was even more interested to see that the music was composed by Howard Shore, who created the amazing, vast, epic score for the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

This is a movie about a man’s past catching up with him. Tom Stall is a simple man who owns a diner in the quiet middle America town of Millbrook. He has a wife and two children. He has a piece of crap pickup that won’t start. He is as completely typically all American as all get out. When a pair of completely cold blooded killers show up in his diner though and try to rob the place and threaten to kill his staff he lashes out, killing both of them. He’s all over the news after that, and a mob boss from Philadelphia shows up in town threatening him and his family because this boss thinks that Tom is Joey Cusack – the son of a rival mobster and an accomplished hit man.

Of course Mr. Fogarty is right. Tom Stall is Joey Cusack, or at least he was, and this movie is about what happens when his life of crime runs smack into his peaceful rural existence. He’s never told his wife, or his children, or anybody in town who he used to be, and when they start to figure it out it begins to tear them apart.

I have to admit that I was somewhat surprised by this movie. It wasn’t at all what the cool previews had led me to expect. I thought this was going to be a guns-a-blazing modern western with one man killing the entire Pennsylvania mob to protect his family. It’s not that movie though. Oh, sure, Tom does eventually kill a whole lot of guys, but it’s not a thrill-packed action adventure. Instead it’s a much more introspective look at the destructive nature of violence, though in the end I’m not sure what the moral is meant to be. It seems to ask if there’s a way to kill enough bad guys to earn the right to earn a peaceful life, but it doesn’t offer an answer to that question.

Rather than an over-the-top action film what Cronenberg delivers here is an intense character study. This is a movie about repercussions. It’s a movie about extreme violence that tries hard not to glorify it. For the most part I think it succeeds, too, and it’s thanks to some restrained direction (according to the trivia on IMDB Cronenberg edited heavily to keep the film more grounded in reality and less actiony. The success of the movie is also due to some fantastic performances. Vigo Mortenson is of course fantastic. I’ve come to expect a deep and nuanced performance out of him with what could have been relatively simple roles and he does not disappoint. Then there’s Ed Harris, who is wonderfully creepy as mob boss Carl Fogarty. Near the end of the film the always astonishing William Hurt shows up in a very short but Oscar nominated appearance as Joey’s made-man brother Richie. The most powerful performance in the movie, however, and the role that really drives the plot and makes the movie work is Maria Bello as Tom’s unsuspecting wife Edie. She is the one most tortured by the revelation that the man she married is not at all the man she thought he was, and Maria completely sells this powerful emotional story.

As for Howard Shore’s score, well it really does a great job of building the tension in the movie. If you’re paying attention (which I was) you can tell that it’s the composer of the Lord of the Rings score, but he reigns himself in in much the same way that Cronenberg does. This is not a bombastic or epic movie. It is a little intimate character study of a movie (with a couple cool action scenes.) Shore keeps the music simple, presenting us with a pleasant theme for Tom’s simple home life and a tense driving theme for Joey’s world.

My only complaint, aside from the one about this completely not being the movie I was expecting from the advertisements, is that Cronenberg lays it on pretty heavily at the start of the film when establishing just how idyllic Tom’s country home life is. We get to see a cute romantic sex scene between him and his wife. We see his daughter having a nightmare (and the whole family comforting her.) We see his son bullied at school. It’s almost excessively perfect. I know that Cronenberg is trying to stress just how much Tom has to lose, but by making it almost unbelievably wonderful he robs the film of some of its gritty realism. It brings the movie into a sort of heightened cinema reality that seems somehow less impactful.

October 10, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment