Sex, Violence, and The Good Book.
“Cronenberg Sells Out”, the headlines blare, and the movie hasn’t even come out yet. How it would even be possible for a director who’s clearly an iconoclast and probably a sex offender to sell out is beyond me, but ever since Richard Pryor starred in Superman III, I guess anything is possible. But Cronenberg in the mainstream is like a particularly poppy Angry Aryans tune; sure, it’s got a great hook and high production values, but once it gets to the chorus, they’re going to stop reviewing it on Good Morning America, unless Marysol Castro is particularly vocal in regards to ‘race-traitors’. Personally, I don’t think Cronenberg could sell out even if he wanted to. The man is like a living thesis defense for the auteur theory, which states that truly great directors essentially make the same film thirty times and then die, getting a nice write up in Sight and Sound by Andrew Sarris when they do. Depending on how you look at it, this is either an argument for the unified cogency of their artistic vision, or a metaphor for how Doritos keeps changing the color of their Cool Ranch spice and marketing it under a different name, like Salsa Verde or whatever the hell Black Pepper Jack is. Which ever opinion you subscribe to, Cronenberg is definitely a textbook auteur. His films inevitably revolve around disease and sex, usually in combination, which can be quite scarring and involve intensive topical cream application. As such, I hold him in high regard as Canada’s finest film director, despite the fact that I don’t like any of his movies.
How is this possible, you ask, seconds after deciding whether or not to continue reading a review that mentions race-treason within the first three sentences? Well, it simply boils down to the fact that I believe that there’s a distinct difference between liking a movie and recognizing that a movie is good. Hopefully, unless you’re Peter Travers, these two should coincide, but this is not always the case. There are plenty of movies I like which I realize are bad, and a few that I know are good, but I can’t watch. Much of Cronenberg’s canon falls into this latter category, particularly Crash. I appreciate the underlying themes of interconnectedness between sex and violence, and the all-consuming addiction to hedonism, but there are better ways to spend an evening than watching James Spader fuck an open wound in Debra Unger’s leg. Like, say, enjoying an adverse drug reaction to meth-amphetamines and having your body temperature rise 8 degrees while you throw up the contents of your colon. Sure, it sounds awful, but afterwards I feel cleansed and refreshed, like the aftereffects of a good sauna, which is in stark contrast to the three days I spent scrubbing my body with rubbing alcohol after watching Crash in a rep theatre with sticky floors.
But that’s neither here nor there. The point I’m trying to make is that while A History of Violence might seem to be a mainstream film, with its Hollywood cast, big budget, and comic book-based script, it’s not even close. It’s got an ending that feels empty unless you think about it, something a mainstream audience is not likely to do so long as there’s The Daily Show to do it for them. And though for the most part the film plays like a heavy character study, each of its lengthy and lyrical scenes are separated by shocking and cartoonish violence, like the film version of Attila Csihar singing the chorus from Scarborough Fair and replacing the lyrics with the entire text of American Psycho’s chainsaw rape scene. It’s too boring for meatheads, and too violent for Oscar bait, so the netherworld it exists in is anything but mainstream. Viggo Mortensen plays Tom Stall, a small town diner owner with a shady past that comes back to haunt him and his family. Said past involves not only organized crime, but horrific sociopathic murder. While the trailer does indicate this twist, for once it only references the first half of the movie, leaving several shocking revelations to be discovered like sewage hidden in dim-sum wrappings. Watching this movie is like finding out that Mr. Rogers is not only a pederast, which was already clear from the first time you saw his show as an adult, but has a particular predilection for eye-sockets. And Cronenberg, true to form, treats Stall’s violence as a disease, and a hereditary one at that, as well as making his usual link between sex and violence, via Maria Bello in a cheerleader uniform.
And it’s exactly this combination of sex and violence that makes this film unsuitable for a mainstream audience, mainly because the mainstream is American, and America still appears to be under the impression that sex is for communists and witches. This is not an original thought, but it’s amazing to me that you can buy assault rifles but not dildos in Alabama. I understand this on a personal level, as I am much more revolted by the exchange of bodily fluids than the act of scrubbing them out of my floorboards before the landlord comes up to find out what all the screaming is about, but the way this is accepted in the US is ridiculous. I realize that the only books they have in the States are ones originally translated for King James, but one would think that every once in a while someone would immigrate from Canada or the UK and accidentally pack some common sense in their carry-on luggage. Consequently, you can show Hannibal Lector wearing another man’s face with impunity, but show Kevin Bacon’s wang and you make headlines. Just in a different way than Cronenberg.