A History of Violence and Derailed (review)

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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-deserved honors). See this movie — I promise it won’t be like any other movie you’ve ever seen, and may well change the way you look at violence in the movies.
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-street diner in their small Indiana town; Edie (Maria Bello: Assault on Precinct 13, Silver City) is the only lawyer in the world who isn’t a completely stressed-out nutball; they have two amazing kids and a hot, healthy sex life. I mean: Wow. There’s an incendiary moment early on the film that is so sexy — and also really sweet — that it is not only such a pinnacle of familial perfection that it clearly cannot be allowed to stand, but it’s also indicative of how dedicated Mortensen and Bello are to these characters, to each other as actors (and the heat of their chemistry together has got to be seen to be believed), and to pushing envelopes of the depiction of married life onscreen. I suspect, too, that Cronenberg let this scene go as far as it does as a kind of litmus test: Will mainstream American audiences be more upset over really steamy marital lovemaking than they will over the horrific violence later in the film?

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-American everyman exterior that could be read in several ways, all of them directly contradictory to the others. You simply cannot predict what Tom will turn out to be because, thank the movie gods, there is no “Viggo Mortensen” screen persona: he’s too vastly different every time he appears on film.

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-movie way that, say, Terminator 2 did, but in a way that feels so profoundly grounded in reality that it almost transcends the screen. The blood and the gore and the massive ragged shotgun wounds, etc, are not glorified, and the criminal life is never romanticized — it is all so blunt and screaming in pain and nasty and raw that you feel the impact, and the characters onscreen do, too, which is perhaps the element that is typically missing from the movies: no one seems stunned by gunshots in the movies. And yet, then there’s the finale, which is so over the top — in the same way that the opening setup of the happy happy happy Stall family seemed almost farcical, seemed so calculated for disaster — that it could only happen in a 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-report-writing daughter that storytelling suspense is about the plot turning in ways you aren’t expecting. So it’s like, Uh-huh, okay, we get it, screenwriter Stuart Beattie will be delivering some surprises, which you might have guessed anyway if you knew he also wrote Collateral. (The film is based on a novel by James Siegel, so the serpentine plot isn’t all Beattie’s doing.)

And still I was genuinely stunned when Charles’s tentative extramarital affair with a fellow suburban-railroad commuter, Lucinda Harris (Aniston: Along Came Polly, Bruce Almighty) takes the titular turn. Partly, I’ll admit, this may be due to the fact that I was so distracted by the idea of hot steamy cheap-hotel illicit sex with Clive Owen that their railroad train could have rolled right over me and I wouldn’t have noticed, but still — that’s part of why we go to the movies, isn’t it? It is for me, at least.

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-kept secret than it is, but there’s more twisting after that. And maybe it’s tawdry and maybe it’s ludicrous and maybe it’s nowhere near as deep or artistic or mind-blowing as A History of Violence, but so what? Not every meal can be a gourmet feast — sometimes a burger from a greasy spoon is just what hits the spot. Derailed: it’s movie fast food, and that’s fine.

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-language debut, pulls off the best trick: he unwraps the fast food from its paper wrapper and serves it up on the good china, and what could have been bland, plastic fare instead becomes infused with Nordic moroseness — and it’s the atmosphere and mood that ultimately saves the twistiness and the ludicrousness from mere gimmickry, and lets you enjoy it in all its trashy wonderfulness.

A History of Violence
viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics
rated R for strong brutal violence, graphic sexuality, nudity, language and some drug use
official site | IMDB

[Amazon U.S.] [Amazon Canada] [Amazon U.K.]

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics
rated R for strong disturbing violence, language and some sexuality
official site | IMDB

[Amazon U.S.] [Amazon Canada] [Amazon U.K.]

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