Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Re-testing a theory

This is the third in my Second Chances series, which runs on Tuesdays. I'm revisiting films I didn't like as much as the average person liked them, to see if I mellow my negative stance upon second viewing.

My wife and I may have been in the minority with our distaste for A History of Violence. But at least we were in synch with each other.

As a matter of fact, our experience watching David Cronenberg's film helped me establish a personal filmgoing theory that I believe in pretty strongly.

You see, when my wife and I went to see A History of Violence, it was back in the days when we still tried to get to popular movies during prime screening times on their opening weekend. And so it was that for the only time in our moviegoing history together, we had to sit separately in the packed theater. When we met up at the end, we both had nothing but negative things to say about the film we'd just sat through. And that's when I knew we were soul mates.

Okay, not really, but it did make me realize something: When two people sit next to each other in a theater, it's very likely that their impression of the film will rub off on each other. Even if they don't emit a series of audible sighs, bursts of derisive laughter or snorts of disgust, their body language (restlessness, crossed arms, etc.) can indicate to the person next to them how they're feeling about the film. And even if the other person doesn't intend to be influenced by these cues, he or she probably can't help it. It's going on on a subconscious level, and it does have its effect. The effect is similar with a positive reaction -- laughter and other sounds of satisfaction can make your viewing partner view the film in a more positive light than he/she otherwise would.

A History of Violence proved that theory by proving its inverse, if that's not too convoluted. Since we were half a theater apart, we had no ability to influence each other's perception. (I should also point out that there were no distracting environmental factors, like ringing cell phones or yakking idiots.) And since we reached the same conclusion independently, the movie had to be bad, right?

Maybe. Or maybe we were just annoyed that we couldn't sit next to each other.

When I gave A History of Violence a second go on Saturday night, I did like it better. Maybe not a whole lot better, but definitely better. In fact, I think the only reason I didn't turn my thumbs down into a thumbs up in my official records was that I wasn't prepared to be viewing this film in a new light yet. My dislike of A History of Violence has been something I've actually enjoyed, and I'm not quite ready to give it up yet.

But the truth is the truth, and this is exactly why I'm doing this project: A History of Violence is better than I've been giving it credit for. Which you know already.

I'll outline my original complaints in no particular order, so you get a sense why I didn't like this film in the first place.

1) Viggo Mortensen. Although I like him well enough as an actor, I found his performance vacant and without affect in this particular film. I guess now I consider that part of the point. His Tom Stall is supposed to be sort of a blank slate, a guy who had to specifically repress the fiery aspects of Joey Cusick in order to evolve into a new identity. You'd expect a little blankness in that scenario. I guess I still find it a little problematic on a basic dramatic level, but I'm okay with it.

2) William Hurt. Hurt's third-act appearance as Richie Cusick was what I considered the most laughable part of A History of Violence. I thought it was an utterly ridiculous example of scenery chewing. Again, I was not as bothered this time. I sat through the movie waiting to burst into hysterics at the horrible acting of this great actor, but it never came. But again I retain a shade of my initial disapproval. I would have interpreted that role differently.

3) The opening scene. I was always a bit bothered by Cronenberg's choice to start on the two criminals that Tom/Joey blows away in his diner about 20 minutes into the movie. It's this wanky single-take shot following Steven McHattie and Greg Bryk as they roll along in a car alongside the motel they've just shot up, and it ends with the revelation of two dead bodies in the manager's office, with Bryk taking a third life (a little girl) right as the action cuts to the Stalls. I didn't really find this necessary -- it concentrates energy on two essentially minor characters, with the purported goal of showing that they deserve to be killed later on by Stall. But I prefer not knowing anything about them -- it's a better proof of Stall's amoral killing instincts. Showing us the bad behavior of the people he kills is an unnecessary -- and possibly counterproductive -- attempt to make the film's morals more black and white.

4) The staircase sex. I almost always find scenes in which two people who are arguing end up having angry, brutal sex in some unconventional location to be melodramatic and stagy. The staircase sex between Stall and his wife (Maria Bello) was no exception, full of histrionics and wild tears. Still bothered me this time, but since I was doing better with the movie overall, I took it in stride.

5) The narrative structure. A History of Violence is only 96 minutes long, so it necessarily has a brisk pace. I appreciated that better this time than I did last time. Last time, I thought the structure felt a bit off, with certain important incidents occurring at unusual junctures of the film, and other incidents not paying off the way they would in a more conventional script. I guess I still think a little character development is lost in the way this story is told, and maybe that's inevitable given the choice to have Ed Harris be the antagonist for the first chunk of the movie, then switch it up to a new character in the final scene. It's a similar problem to what I have with Sexy Beast -- it feels like it's all first act and third act, with no second act. (And stay tuned for my Second Chance viewing of Sexy Beast.)

This viewing also reminded me of the strengths I appreciated during the first go-around, drowned out by my complaints though they may have been. There's something interesting about the idea of a gangster who went straight for so long that he didn't think there was any chance he'd be pulled back in -- a proof of the idea that violent men have long memories. I also liked the brutality with which Cronenberg showed some of the violence, in a way that totally deglamorized it -- specifically, McHattie taking gurgling breaths of his own blood after he's been shot through the head in the diner, and the guy whose nose Stall breaks, seizing on the ground with what looks like a bloody pig's snout.

Second Chance Verdict, A History of Violence: That thumbs up may, reluctantly, be coming soon. Even if it means I have to sell out both my wife and my theory about proximal film viewings.


Anonymous said...


you should have said you initially saw it in a packed theater! i can't imagine liking a movie while being surrounded by hundreds of people.

i actually liked the staircase sex scene. but i liked the movie in general, as you know ;)

and i like your project. it's a great idea.

but hey, what about maria bello?

Vancetastic said...

Ha! I intentionally avoided the controversial Maria Bello issue. ;-)

You know she's not one of my favorites. But I didn't feel like her performance in this was deserving of being singled out.

simoncolumb said...

It is great really ... but the staircase sex is really awkward to watch and i reckon thats intentional. But when somethings awkward, in the wrong environment, it makes you laugh.

Great write-up!


Aiden R. said...

I liked this movie a lot the first time I saw it but have been meaning to watch it again since then. Yeah, that staircase sex scene was pretty bonkers along with the first sex scene where it seems like the camera just won't stop shooting while they act like gerbils in heat. All the same good stuff and glad you gave it another go around. Well done.