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Interview: David Cronenberg Speaks of Violence

by Peter Sobczynski

One of the world’s most highly acclaimed filmmakers, David Cronenberg sits down to discuss his latest masterpiece, “A History of Violence,”, the issues that it raises and the very idea that a film as dark and transgressive as this could somehow be considered his commercial breakthrough.

For more than three decades, Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg has delivered some of the most unforgettable and thought-provoking cinematic works to appear in that time–“Videodrome,” “The Fly,” “Dead Ringers,” “Naked Lunch” and “Crash,” to name but a few. However, his latest work, the astonishing “A History of Violence” is easily one of the best and most provocative works of his entire career. In it, Viggo Mortensen (in the best performance that he has ever delivered) is Tom Stall, an ordinary man with a beautiful house, beautiful wife (Maria Bello) and two perfect kids. This idyllic existence is shattered when Tom successfully defends his diner against a pair of vicious thugs and becomes a media hero as a result. The attention attracts the notice of another bad man (Ed Harris) who comes to Tom’s diner and insists that Tom is not Tom at all–he claims that Tom is really one Joey Cusack from back east and was responsible for his mutilated eyeball, among many other things.

What happens from there is for you to discover. However, what may sound like an iconic story is, in Cronenberg’s gifted hands, a thoughtful meditation on violence and its aftermath–both physical and emotional–as well as a penetrating look at the facades that all people build up around themselves for their own personal reasons. Because most of the violence on display is incurred in the name of self-defense, some may read “A History of Violence” as an endorsement of such acts–when the law cannot protect an ordinary person (neither the ineffectual sheriff nor Edie, who works as a lawyer, can stop bad things from happening), it is up to that person to defend himself by any means necessary. Because those acts of violence only lead to more trouble for everyone (having been picked on by a bully at school for no apparent reason, Jack suddenly turns on him with a savage fury that lands the kid in the hospital and Jack with a suspension), some may read the film as a critique of the might-makes-right mindset that people use to justify everything from a neighborhood skirmish to a war in Iraq. The genius of Cronenberg’s work here is that he is able to acknowledge both positions and the feelings behind them while recognizing that the complexities of real life often overwhelm such cut-and-dried analysis. In this film, violence is never seen as anything other than brutal and deeply disturbing, but he doesn’t overlook the simple fact that most people have the capacity for violence within them and to attempt to ignore that fact can have dire consequences as well.

WARNING: Because it is impossible to discuss the film properly without revealing certain key plot developments, it is probably wise to refrain reading this interview until after you have seen the film. Come back to it, though, because it is a really good interview.

When “A History of Violence” premiered earlier this year at Cannes, the hook that most journalists used in describing the film was that it was your most commercially accessible work to date. At the time, that assessment seemed a little odd because nearly all of your early films up through “The Fly” were works in which you explored personal themes within the parameters of a commercially viable genre that ensured their success at the box-office–it wasn’t until “Dead Ringers” that your work became more commercially esoteric. Having seen the film, that assessment seems even stranger because instead of being the simplified sell-out that such a description would indicate, the film is as dark, troubling and thematically challenging as anything that you have ever done. Therefore, why do you think that so many people are considering it to be so commercially accessible–are they assuming that the mass audience has caught up with you or are they misreading the film in some fundamental way?

I don’t think they are misunderstanding the film. I think that, as you said, they forget that I did “The Dead Zone,” which was based on a Stephen King best-seller, which was pretty mainstream, especially at the time, and that “Scanners” was once the #1 film in the country and so was “The Fly.” In France, “Crash” was a big hit but here, it had some problems. “Naked Lunch” was not exactly mainstream and “M. Butterfly” was kind of a flop. “Spider” was an art film with a capital “A” that didn’t get huge distribution–a lot of people love it but not a lot of people in America got a chance to see it.

There is some truth in that if you compare it to “Spider,” my last film, “A History of Violence” seems to be pretty commercial by comparison. It is all relative and then you have to ask “Relative to what?” Clearly, “A History of Violence” is the most expensive movie that I’ve ever made and it is the closest that I have ever come to making a studio movie, even though it is New Line, which is not a typical studio. If it cost $32 million and a studio is making it, the expectation is that it should be more commercial and, by its very nature, more mainstream. For example, New Line would never have done “Spider” or distributed it–Sony Classics distributed it and there was not a lot of money involved in that.

Primarily, I think that the difference is that the characters are more mainstream and recognizable. When they say that the movie is more accessible, I think they mean that the characters are more accessible. Everybody recognizes that family while not everybody recognizes who Spider is and not everybody recognizes his fantasy of his family, even in England. I think those are the three things they are talking about: budget, studio and accessible characters. To me, that is not a big deal. “The Dead Zone” was also about a small town in America and a family and it even had a sheriff in a funny hat. I feel that it is not a strange thing but I guess that they needed something to write about and that became the hook. I think that people were genuinely surprised by the film and they needed to explain to themselves why.

In the way that it deals with loaded subject matter in a way that avoids simple black-and-white explanations, the film feels as deeply personal as anything you have done to date. Therefore, I was intrigued to learn that not only did you not originate the project, you weren’t even aware that it was originally published as a graphic novel when you were working on the screenplay with the writer. Were you looking for a project that dealt with this particular subject matter when you came upon the screenplay?

I wasn’t looking for anything–I was just looking like I was walking on a beach. I’m always looking for something that will make me say “Oh, I don’t have to write my own script!” Like most writers, I would really prefer to not write if I can avoid it because writing an original screenplay is quite difficult and you hope that a script will come along that is so great that you will want to do that instead. I don’t have this checklist of things that must be in a screenplay–people think I have this checklist of weird stuff that I look for. If something hits me in a certain way and makes me think that there is potential for exploring interesting things if I get into it. I don’t worry about my other films or anybody’s expectations of what I do or don’t do. I forget all that stuff and just concentrate on the project. I can analyze after the fact as well as anybody what there is in this movie that connects with my earlier films but that is not how I choose to do a project.

What was interesting to me was the iconic Americana aspect of it. It has the tone of a Western–a guy standing alone with a gun on the landscape as the iconic loner–Gary Cooper or John Wayne–protecting his family and property from the bad guys. Then you have the gangster elements–the bad guys come to get you and you don’t know why–and there is also a bit of the Hitchcockian wrong man scenario. It is all of those things but they don’t come to me as themes that excite me. I can’t photograph a theme or an abstract concept no more than an actor can play an abstract concept. If you tell an actor that he is playing the embodiment of evil, he will fall on his knees sobbing because you can’t play that–you have to play him as a person. With me, it is the same; it is the specifics and not the abstract concepts and themes that hook me.

In a way, “A History of Violence” is about facades as much as anything else from the life that Tom Stall has constructed for himself to the depiction of the small Indiana town that, like him is just a little too good to be true if you think about it for a while. The main performances are also like that–when I first saw the film, the performances by Ed Harris and William Hurt struck me as being stylized in comparison to the more naturalistic work by Viggo Mortensen. In hindsight, of course, one of the most brilliant things about the film is that Mortensen is delivering a performance just as stylized in that he is playing up the Everyman ideal as much as Harris and Hurt are playing up to what we expect from our movie gangsters.

It is more than a facade–it is a kind of role-playing where the roles are all that you have got. “Is there anything more real than the role?” is one of the questions that you have to ask. In fact, J.G. Ballard wrote a lovely piece about the movie in the Guardian that said “Aren’t we all basically in a witness-relocation program?” I thought that was a nice way of putting it because is it really a facade if that is all there is? What is real and how real is real. If he spent 20 years in that life and had two kids and got hit by a bus before those guys came to town, he would have been buried as Tom Stall and revered as a pillar of the community that died too young. That is pretty real, so which is more real? Those things are pretty interesting.

And yes, we talk about America and its mythology of itself, which sometimes seems more real to people than the reality of America–that yearning for that naive and innocent past that undoubtedly never existed but that somehow is embedded in the national consciousness and which is embodied in that scaled-down small town in the middle of Disneyworld. It is that “Twilight Zone” type of small town that just isn’t quite right but which has so much potency in the imagination and which has been exported to the rest of the world. The whole world knows about “High Noon” and “Shane” and all that iconography and there is a reality to it now. Not to get too political, but there is an administration now that seems to have based its foreign policy on old western TV shows like “Wanted Dead or Alive.” That makes it pretty real. Things are going out into the world and are doing things–in this case, primarily destructive things–based on that simple duality of good and evil of westerns. That is an unreality that has become more real than reality and it gets quite complex.

The thing about identity is that it is not a genetic given. There are choices that are made–partly because of cultural pressures but partly because of some innate choice-making thing where we absorb some things and reject other things. I knew young me who at the age of 30 were old because they wanted to be old–they didn’t want childhood or adolescence and they would adopt the posture and attitudes and thinking of a 50-year-old man when they were 30. Those were decisions that were made–something that they saw that they wanted to be and went for it. In terms of dealing with identity, this film and “Spider” would make for a pretty good double-bill–thematically and emotionally, both are about the amount of creative will it takes to create and sustain an identity. In one case, you have a guy who can’t do it and in the other, you have a guy who has done it rather well, maybe too well, and in both cases, the past is now merging with the present.

I wanted to ask you about the construction of the key scene in the diner in which Tom defends himself and his colleagues against the two bad guys who enter. As I was watching it, I realized that this was one of the few times in recent memory where an action scene depended more on the performance of the actor for its impact than the action choreography.

I don’t use storyboards or anything, so it is always about working it out on the set. I really had to decide how the violence would be portrayed in the movie. Once again, rather than imposing some overall abstract concept of how violence should be in the cinema, I wanted it to come from the movie itself and to let the movie tell me what it should be. Where does the violence come from? It comes from certain characters, so where did they learn it from and what does violence mean to them. It is business with these guys–they learned it on the street, so it would be street violence instead of martial-arts violence or military violence. It was meant to be quick, brutal and efficient–the guy needs to be taken out so you do it and go on to the next thing. That was the key for that sort of violence.

With the scene in the diner, we have a difficult thing because he has to do it but it has to seem awkward. When he says “Anyone would have done what I did,” the audience isn’t so sure but at the same time, I think that people do think that they might rise to the occasion. What does he do? He doesn’t do anything too spectacular that somebody else couldn’t do. He hits someone with a coffeepot–I could do that. He jumps over the counter–I could probably do that. He picks up the gun, fumbles with it and then shoots somebody. That isn’t that hard. Physically, most people could do that–whether they would have the presence of mind is a different thing. You read things in the newspaper about people who sometimes do rise to that occasion and become provoked. We are playing with the fact that maybe he could do that–maybe he was in the army or maybe he was a cop because we know he came to that town late since his wife says “We never got to be teenagers together.”

It was really about trying to get that intimacy and suddenness of the violence mixed with a ramping up of Tom’s skills. At first, it seems that he might just be a very athletic Everyman and maybe he could have done that but later, it gets to the point where it seems like he is just a little too good for that. By the end, of course, you know. It was about finding the right levels for those things. We are really making two movies at once–the first time you see it and the second time you see it. The second time, it still has to make sense, only you start seeing things in a different light that didn’t seem significant the first time around. Then you will see bits of Joey poking around and that is because of the wonderful performance of Viggo’s, which you don’t entirely get until you see it for the second time.

link directly to this feature at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/feature.php?feature=1607
originally posted: 09/29/05 21:27:59
last updated: 10/20/05 18:56:37
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