A History of Violence (2005)

David Cronenberg | 1hr 36min

Even after we see the true violent colours of diner owner Tom Stall, we still might struggle to believe the truth. Gangster Joey Cusack is buried so deep in his consciousness that even he might consider it a dream of a past life, surfacing only when he finds himself in high pressure situations. But even when he isn’t taking lives, that viciousness is there. It explodes when Tom engages in violent sex with his wife, when he slaps his son, Jack, in a moment of anger, and then when Jack goes to school and savagely beats up his bully. A History of Violence does not aim for the same visceral disgust as previous David Cronenberg films, and yet in its psychological interrogations of humanity’s ravenous craving for self-destruction we still find traces of the director known for his body horror.

Visiting the sins of the father onto his children, passing on violence from one generation to the next.

It opens with a four-minute tracking shot along the outside of a motel where two thugs, Leland and William, eliminate its owners with chilling nonchalance. Thanks to Cronenberg’s reserved, distant camera, we barely even register it happening at first. Our discovery of the blood-streaked office plays out with equal detachment, treating the bodies as if they are simply part of the furniture. For Cronenberg, they might as well be. The title A History of Violence may refer to Tom’s hidden past, but it also holds implications regarding the merciless foundations of our very society, its brutal inclinations being passed from one generation to next like DNA. That is certainly the case when we see how easily Jack embraces force as means to solve his problems after seeing his father use it, but in the contentious relationship between Tom and his estranged brother, Richie, Cronenberg also calls back to the very first instance of violence record in the Bible – the murder of Abel by his own brother, Cain.

Opening with a four minute tracking shot along the outside of this motel. One of Cronenberg’s finest moments as a director.

Through this approach to allegorical storytelling, Cronenberg imbues his fascination with carnal flesh with spiritual significance. Joey describes his transformation into Tom as a process which took several years of his life, almost like Christ’s own self-exile into the desert. Later when he must make that change again, he kneels in front of a lake and washes himself in the water, as if performing a ritualistic baptism that will see him reborn again as meek, mild-mannered Tom.

Cronenberg keeping his camera detached from the violence in this frame.

Capturing these contradictory facets of a single man’s identity is no easy feat of acting, and yet watching Viggo Mortensen shift between both modes is like seeing a switch flip on and off, instinctually moving from passivity into fierce action. It is a duality that Cronenberg deftly builds into the form of his narrative as well, playing out submissive scenes of harassment, sex, and family time, before turning them on their head later by revealing the violent versions of each that Joey is far more familiar with.

Though the character of Richie Cusack has been built towards through the film, it isn’t until we meet him in the final act and witness William Hurt’s menacingly courteous portrayal that we fully understand the dark past that Joey has been trying to suppress. This is a man who represents every sin Joey has ever committed and tried to forget. Though Richie casually nicknames his brother “Bro-ham” he also delivers his dialogue with an unblinking, penetrating gaze, bringing to light Joey’s violence which, whether he likes it or not, has afforded him his own survival.

A pair of excellent performances – both Mortensen and Hurt are absolutely chilling as these brothers reuniting after many years.

The foundation of violence upon which Tom’s American Dream is built is not one that can easily be shied away from once it is exposed. Cronenberg skilfully stages A History of Violence’s final scene within a terse silence, bringing Tom back home to a wordless family dinner right after killing his brother. Whatever return to ordinary life he was hoping for seems preposterous now given its jarring contrast with what came immediately before. Life may return to some semblance of normality, but the shadow of violence is there to stay, hanging over a family that will very likely continue to keep visiting the sins of its father upon his children.

A masterful piece of direction to end the film, this silence stretching for several minutes as Tom reintegrates back into family life.

A History of Violence is currently streaming on Stan, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.

Pride and Prejudice (2005)

Joe Wright | 2hr 7min

It is evident that Joe Wright isn’t all that interested in creating a straight page-to-screen adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, as the 1995 BBC television miniseries is already there for anyone looking to scratch that itch. His cinematic interpretation of Jane Austen’s novel brings a stylistic and formal flair to Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy’s terse romance that we haven’t seen before, efficiently constructing the world of 19th century England in long takes that soar through lavish ballrooms, hallways, and mansions.

As we glide alongside his characters, we occasionally find ourselves detaching from one and hooking onto another, as if trying to eavesdrop on a little bit of every conversation going on. When we reach the ball scene, Wright’s camera sways and twirls around Elizabeth and Mr Darcy’s dance, binding them together in a whirlwind of tension that separates them from the rest of the crowd. By constantly adjusting our frame of reference Wright heightens the romantic impressionism of Elizabeth’s world, and keeps finding new ways to paint her and other characters within intricately blocked crowds and gorgeously adorned rooms.

Wright’s camera is just as much a part of the dance as Elizabeth and Mr Darcy, circling and swooning with them in this moment of unison.
Mr Darcy’s country estate, Pemberley, is an especially attractive set piece. The painted murals as backdrops and opulent decor here make for striking imagery.

Given how much the literary format lends itself to directly conveying a character’s personal thoughts, there is a challenge that Wright takes on in visually establishing the coldness of our main couple’s relationship while imbuing it with a touch of sensuality and yearning. He emphasises Mr Darcy’s hands in cutaways, usually betraying some sort of emotion that he is too taciturn to express. When the two lovers dance together at the ball, Elizabeth is one of the few women to not be wearing gloves, accentuating the skin-to-skin contact taking place between them.

All of this comes to a head in the final profession of love between the two. As Mr Darcy emerges from the early morning fog, Wright refuses to the push the camera forward like he has in almost every other scene. Instead, it is Darcy who makes the decisive movement to approach us, signifying his momentous opening up. When he and Elizabeth finally embrace, she notes the coldness of his hands, tying off the motif that has finally turned from subtext to text.

Wright hangs on this shot for 45 seconds, for the first time letting Darcy approach the camera rather than the other way round.

One must certainly give credit to Jane Austen for providing Joe Wright such a rich piece of literature to begin with, but it is the extra dimension of cinematic world building that lets this adaptation of Pride and Prejudice flourish. No doubt there were plot points were removed or condensed to fit the entire novel into two hours, but considered on its own there is nothing here that feels incomplete or missing. This is a full-bodied period piece brimming with visual detail, from the rolling green hills of the English countryside to the 19th century ballrooms, and there is little that can detract from the power of its romanticism.

Pride and Prejudice is currently available to stream on Binge, and available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.