Ignorance Is Bliss
I knew nothing about A History of Violence before I sat down to watch it, absolutely nothing except that it starred Viggo Mortensen, and that that was enough to make me want to see it. I had even managed to avoid hearing that this was a David Cronenberg film, knowledge that certainly would have colored my expectations about it, as would have the knowledge, which I did not have until just before the movie began, that this was based on a graphic novel.
Of course, I did not achieve this dramatic ignorance by leading a hermit’s life, living in a cave, and avoiding all media — I was lucky enough to see the film a few weeks before it opened, before the barrage of TV ads and the like that reveal things that, had I known they were coming, would have drastically altered my experience of the film. It may be the single thing I love best about what I do, the opportunity to see films before my anticipation of them can be molded by marketing — even sometimes see films with absolutely no preconceptions whatsoever. Sometimes it doesn’t matter if you know what’s coming, and sometimes it’s fun to get caught up in the hype, but sometimes, ignorance really is bliss.
Not that foreknowledge would have diminished A History of Violence for me, just made the experience of it different, and I don’t mean to suggest that there’s no point in seeing the film if you have been exposed to the marketing (which is sure to ramp up as the movie awards season begins in earnest, because this is without question one of the very best films of the year, and it will be vying for all sorts of well-
And it’s not like you’re not gonna know, with a kind of sinking horror gnawing at the pit of your stomach, from the opening moments of Violence, that something very, very bad will be in the offing. Because, in the calculus of The Movies, families that start out happy cannot stay that way. And the Stalls are ridiculously, absurdly, luminously happy: Tom (Mortensen: Hidalgo, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King) runs the main-
Cronenberg and screenwriter Josh Olson — working from the graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke — set a nightmare horror on a collision course with the Stalls, a chilling vision of depravity and death that will leave you twisted up in grim anticipation: you’re muttering, “Oh no, oh no,” over and over as it approaches. And then when it hits, it’s so shockingly not what you were expecting that from that moment on, your entire movie world is rocked — all bets are off, all the rules are thrown out the window, and you have nothing to cling to, no movie safety net. You can’t sit there comfortable in the knowledge that everything will turn out a certain way because this is the movies and things always turn out a certain way. You don’t know whom to believe, what to trust… and that is an exhilarating feeling, to be walking an emotional tightrope along with the characters on the screen.
A lot of that delicious uncertainty comes courtesy of Mortensen: his cleverness, these last ten years or so he’s been showing up on our screens, not to let himself get pigeonholed or stereotyped pays off in a big way here — there’s a skittery kind of unease under Tom’s bland, all-
But part of the luscious, merciless goodness that is A History of Violence is that it is a successful paradox — it is almost a parody of the gleeful Hollywood sandbox depiction of violence at the same time it is a grounded parable about the wages of violence, how allowing oneself to descend into barbarism, even in the defense of home and hearth, invariably comes back to bite you on the ass. This is an extremely violent movie that condemns violence, not in that cartoony movie-
And of course A History of Violence is only a movie — but it strikes a chord of authenticity, too, achieving a perfect balance between letting us get lost in its people and story and never letting us forget that this is primarily a movie meant to divert us. That, in the end, is the film’s real claim to genius.
Derailed is not the supreme screen experience that A History of Violence is — it’s just a fun movie that’s a helluva lot more fun if you go into it with no idea of what to expect. This is another film I went into completely blind, aware only that Clive Owen was in it (and, dimly, Jennifer Aniston) and that that was enough to get my butt in the seat, and I’m shocked at how much of the film’s twistiness is revealed in the TV ads. Cuz the pivotal 180 the film does is downright riveting if you don’t see it coming… and yet I can easily see how, if you’re aware of the turn Derailed is going to take, it could clue you into much of what’s going to shake out after that, and it would be a real shame if a good time at the movies was ruined by the very method — the marketing of that film — that gets you psyched for it in the first place.
So if you can manage it, stick your fingers in your ears and go “La la la! I can’t hear you!” when a trailer enters your vicinity. I mean, you don’t even want to know what genre this flick falls into — that’s enough of a spoiler. Like with A History of Violence, you’d have to be brain dead not to know that something freaky was in the offing, because within like the first five minutes of the film, Chicago ad exec Charles Schine (Owen: Sin City, Closer) is explaining to his book-
And still I was genuinely stunned when Charles’s tentative extramarital affair with a fellow suburban-
Oh, but again, as with Violence, knowing what surprise comes to pass in that cheap hotel room spoils only half the fun — it should be a far better-
What makes it work is the integrity of everyone involved. Owen is his usual effortless smoldering sumptuousness, and Aniston’s tricksy performance will take unawares those who know her only from sitcoms (though not those of us who have been enjoying her indie work, as in The Good Girl). But Swedish director Mikael Hafstrom, making his English-