– “The Best of the Decade Project” is an ongoing series of essays written by Match Cuts and The Filmist concerning the finest films of the last ten years.
After a short delay, it is so that we return –
TheFilmist: Let’s start with your film, howzabout?
MatchCuts: For sure. For me, A History of Violence is Cronenberg’s most disturbing film because it’s all about the interior character, something that he plays with in beautifully constructed conflicts that build in violence, literally ripping this small town family apart. Did the film have this type of effect on you?
F: It was certainly an affecting film, and all the more so because I’d read the graphic novel it was based on beforehand. And, it’s filled with a lot of really, really over-the-top violence, without much focus – so, it was especially astounding the opposite direction Cronenberg went, deciding to move inward instead of outward. Although the film is not without it’s physical violence – generally any time Tom Stall is prodded into action – it seemed to be more about emotional violence.
M: And how emotional violence begins in these small little moments of indecision, of mistrust, the breaking apart of these relationships. Even though some of the dialogue is over the top, the emotional violence you mentioned just seems to ooze under the surface. You see this especially with the son and with Tom’s wife. The doubt of it all.
F: Oh, certainly. I love the moment just before the attack on the family’s lawn between Tom and his wife – but, it becomes especially potent afterward, in the hospital when Tom admits everything to Edie.
M: Her reaction, violently throwing up, almost purging that trust from her soul, is really an astounding moment, and Bello’s performance goes toe to toe with Viggo’s astounding turn. It’s the one Cronenberg moment where the viral themes of his previous films comes into play.
F: And from then on, there’s an almost opaque aura of mistrust around the two of them, when we see them both at the dinner table and driving home, finally culminating in the – I don’t quite want to call it a rape sequence, but you know of what I’m referring to.
M: That second sex scene is all about Edie challenging Tom to bring out his alter ego, the violence in the sex, that love really doesn’t play into it, the control she wants him to show in order to prove his other self really does exist. She’s seen the violence, but now she challenges him in the bedroom, and the result is devastating for them both. Especially for Tom, he his truly torn between past and present.
F: What was interesting to me about that scene was that it acts as a parallel to the earlier, more gentle sex scene between the two, and how – in contrast to that one – there’s absolutely no real warmth between the two. It’s almost completely mechanical.
M: The two sex scenes are crucial to this film Rosenbaum talks about it in his great review for the film, about how this film is a series of flip sides to a coin. Similar Interactions between characters that take place at different points in the film, but have very different tones, outcomes, and consequences.
F: This is true.
M: And I really think Cronenberg achieves this perfect vision of an alternate world, where global issues reside in the local, the violence of protecting one’s property, be psychological or physical property at stake.
F: I also love the son’s arc – well, love’s not the right word, because it’s not really a positive arc, but it’s so well-rounded, even if the bullies he constantly has trouble with do seem just a little over the top at times. What cinched it for me was that scene of himself and his (as The Dude would put it) special lady friend smoking pot outside of that downtown building – that’s essentially what it’s like, living in a small town like that. Either that, or you go to Wal-Mart.
M: The son is really the most over the top character in the film for me, in that his arc is the most drastic like you said. The opening introduction to the family is so exaggerated, and his story about the monsters, very strange, then where he ends up by the end of the film, full of hatred toward not understanding his father, or himself, it makes the bullies look tame in comparison.
F: I can see that. I mean, forgive my course language, but he is kind of a whiny bitch throughout the whole movie, almost to an excessive degree.
M: Yes, and I think this is the point. The contrast in characters. Father and so are about as far apart as one could imagine. But after the violence he commits, the son is on the road toward becoming his father.
F: Yes, indeed. After he shoots Fogarty in the face, he does seem to become a gradually more brooding character, disaffected by such things – then, there’s that final sequence, where Joey arrives home, and through the aura of almost complete and total distrust between everybody in the room towards him, his son pushes his plate nearer to him.
M: The last scene, at the dinner table, is one of my favorite in Film History. No words spoken, yet there is so much weight, so much action in these character’s faces. They way Cronenberg uses eye lines to connect certain characters and not others, all culminating in the innocent child getting Tom’s plate for him. It’s what all filmmakers should aspire to, telling a story through the eyes of its characters.
F: That’s one of the things that I feel should be stressed more often, certainly – attention to the eyes, because that’s where it all is. Especially in a visual medium.
M: And you see this motif throughout A History of Violence, when the bullies almost run into the killers, all they do is share a glance, and that‘s enough. Tthere’s an intrinsic understanding between both evil doers and innocents.
F: Indeedy. I love the look of the film, as well – the cinematography is almost sedate, in contrast to what it’s framing.
M: I always like to talk about the extreme violence in the film, how Tom almost seems like a superhero when he’s enacting these brutal death blows, he’s so swift, and his actions are incredibly potent. No one stands a chance against him, but his actions represent the evil inside of him. Like all great Westerns, you have to return to your evil ways in order to save what matters most. This is probably most evident in Anthony Mann’s Man of the West, where Gary Cooper has to relive his days as a serial killing outlaw to save his new life. And this plays into the framing as well, As you stated.
F: Yes, and the impact of Tom’s actions are much helped by Cronenberg’s trimming all the excess fat from the film’s pulpy, pulpy source material.
M: There’s not a wasted scene in this film, and that’s the sign of a great director.
F: The contrast between the two is really most obvious when talking about the ‘Richie’ character, Tom’s brother in the film. His story ties into the weird, fragmented structure of the graphic novel – which is, half the time, about Tom’s escape from the mob. They capture Richie, cut off his limbs and string him up in a dark room, and torture him, which we’re reminded of constantly. Stuff like that.
M: Yes, how that would fit into Cronenberg’s vision is tough to reconcile.
F: And, yes – there’s a great and sudden visceral quality to those scenes where Joey is roused out of Tom’s stupor. Rapid-fire editing combined with brutal, unnerving violence.
M: Character through editing, not dialogue, Cronenberg does this to a great extent in Eastern Promises as well, I think it’s something about Viggo’s face that allows for such an approach, the wrinkles of his face, the complexity of tone.
F: He’s a great deal more interesting here than in the Lord of the Rings, I’ll say that much.
M: For sure. I also wanted to mention the opening long take, which is truly an astounding way to introduce characters. The slow, languished stroll of their walk, the restless, tired nature they seem to exude. These guys seem so beat, yet they will kill and kill, seemingly forever to stay one step ahead. Of what? Who knows. It plays into the fact that there is a whole other universe going on right under our noses, of evil men and murder.
F: I like the fluidity of that shot – it’s almost like a magic sleight-of-hand trick.
M: We wait for something bad to happen, but it’s already happened off screen, Just genius pacing, something Cronenberg does better than anyone.
M: I think the best segue way into The Hurt Locker is the Western angle. Both of these films seem to be using Western archetypes and iconography but in other genres, and extreme genres at that. The War film and the Thriller.
F: That’s an angle I relied upon a lot in my review, actually – in The Hurt Locker, the connection is more definitively stated, with the main character James’ nickname being “cowboy,” and the use of the desert. “The Hurt Locker” is a startling picture, I think – and, probably one of the only truly apolitical war films we’ve had in a while. Although, in a way – it does really become about the perils of war in a way that hasn’t been confronted all that much, and that is war-as-addiction, as an initial escape from a fractured home-life in James’ case that seems to spiral outward. But, also – it’s a film constantly fraught with visceral tensity, through it’s set-pieces.
M: When I first saw your list, I thought maybe it was too soon to call this one of the best of the decade, but it’s certainly a masterful piece, and I think that tense, constant onslaught of uncertainty, makes it a near masterpiece.
F: That thought had crossed my mind early on, but then a second one soon followed it, and that was – “oh, well. Better earlier than before it becomes too late.” It’s the one film I have in the whole of my selections that comes from this present year, actually – in contrast to the two I have from 2007 and the two from 2008 (but, now I’m spoiling things).
M: What struck me most about Bigelow’s direction, is her reliance on the POV shot, usually an omniscient POV from above, or the POV from potential attackers. It makes the build up just too much to bare. Where is the violence going to come from? Like many Westerns, the attack could come from any direction, and this plays perfectly into the current War’s in the Middle East.
F: This is true. And, speaking of the cinematography, that was one of the more interesting technical aspects of the film, was her use of multiple camera on the same take. And, the POV shots are of particular note – fleeting shots from the back of an abandoned car, on the side of the road, from the window of a building above, quickly – making us jumpy, and expectant. It’s a disarmingly simple device, but one that’s of particular effect, when suddenly – WHACK!
M: A sniper’s bullet rips through a body.
F: But, speaking of the POV shots of the film, the ones that stand out the most for me are the most are the ones that come to pass during the unnaturally long and held-out sequence in the desert, the almost High Noon-esque standoff between the snipers in the broken building husk some miles off, through the haze and desert heat.
M: Best scene of 2009. Just monumentally long, drawn out to the extreme, we get to feel the sweat and dust on their faces, and the action is just brutal.
F: You keep wondering when the scene is going to cut, and it doesn’t – not for almost fifteen minutes, nearing twenty.
M: It doesn’t let you off the hook, ever.
F: And it’s really in those scenes that the character James seems to come alive, almost – he’s over there, buzzing encouragement in their marksman’s ear, and he’s down there, tending to the guy who got shot down in the crevice. Which is what’s really interesting about him – initially, he seems to be the newest iteration in the cool and silent stranger, coming into this new unit a hot-shot with a long history of success at what he does. But, slowly Bigelow reveals him to be the most vulnerable out of all of them – even the officer who was mentioning to the psychiatrist his contemplations of suicide.
M I don’t get it when critics say James isn’t a complex character, that he’s one note. Come on! The last scenes with him are down right dynamic. The choices he makes, the contradictions he experiences, just incredible stuff.
F: I’d say those critics probably fell asleep in the second hour, but things start bubbling under the surface with him during that scene relatively early on, where he has a startling reaction to the rough-housing of his fellow cadets, and we hear the details about his home-life for the first time.
M: James gets tempted so many times to develop human relationships, and it almost seems like it war, that’s the last thing you want to do, get attached, which is why he is so reckless, so perfectly attuned to the environment over the personnel who are his support team. He’s a true lone wolf.
F: Yes – and then, everything falls apart during his saga with the boy, eventually even leading him to break into civilian’s homes.
M: He just breaks down, and becomes this frantic roaming soldier who has no connection with the enemy or his comrades, just a blatant need to diffuse situations that he deems dangerous, no matter how perilous.
F: – which really makes the ending all that more unnerving, really. That he decides to throw himself back into those same situations over again.
M: For James, the life of diffusing bombs is easier than dealing with the reality of stateside existence. Like I said in my review a while back, the walk down the grocery store isle is more dangerous for James than that final walk of the film.
F: All those cereal boxes – the aisle just becomes daunting. Still, I’d probably feel the same way, and I’m not even a soldier. There’s just too many cereals, man.
M: Ha ha, for sure. It’s pretty scary though, everyday decisions are just moot in the face of extreme danger. And this makes perfect sense. It’s the reason why people buy into the fact that War is indeed a drug.
M: The cameos in this film are first rate, especially Ralph Fiennes and David Morse, just brilliant incarnations of the macho war film persona, yet slightly askew.
F: Yes, and they’re so well-integrated that you hardly register them on your first go around. And then – ‘hey, it’s Ralph Fiennes!” Of course – he doesn’t last long.
M: No one really does in this movie, mentally and physically.
F: True. They all become rundown in some way or another.
M: What about the slow motion in this film? Just great uses of an overused action aesthetic. Makes what seems cliche fresh again, it brings this breakneck film to an almost serene state.
F: Those almost surreal shots of James in the bomb-suit, making his way down the deserted street – they’re almost haunting.
M: The moment where the ground shifts under their feet, the pebbles and sand just slowly moving away. Let’s talk about Bigelow’s treatment of these extreme situations. How does this play into her other films? You mentioned Point Break in your review, which is a great example of subverting action film tropes to create an interesting genre film.
F: Bigelow uses a lot of devices that have become somewhat stale in recent years, and she does so in a way that actually makes them feel new – partially, I think this is because she integrates them so well throughout the film: an action sequence charged with viscerality slows down suddenly to witness the idiosyncratic site of the army-man in his balloon-shaped bomb-suit make his way down the street, or plumes of dust rising up from their feet. All of her films seem to be about the dynamic of male camaraderie in these extreme situations, really. She just seems so — fascinated by us, for some reason, and “Point Break” is another example.
M: Yes, and even though many of her films are quite cheesy, they can be linked through these auteurist traits. Like it or not, she’s a fascinating artist. And The Hurt Locker is maybe her best and most accomplished films.
F: Oh, I’m fine with those two statements – I actually enjoy “Strange Days” quite a bit, although “Point Break” is phenomenally cheesy, I agree. What with the Swayze and the Keanu, and all.
M: yes, Keanu doesn’t exude seriousness.
F: Well, he tries.