Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Reel Fanatic: "A History of Violence" and the fear factor

Canadian director David Cronenberg doesn't directly ask any questions in "A History of Violence," but he leaves the audience with many as the closing credits roll. And that's exactly as it should be.

In it he gives us what seems to be the ideal American family, Midwestern diner owner Tom Stall and his beautiful wife and two seemingly perfect children. As Stall, Viggo Mortensen tells us early on that he is "the luckiest son of a bitch in the world," and since he says it after a scene of pure sexuality with the radiant Maria Bello, it's almost impossible to disagree with him.

But as briskly as Cronenberg introduces our protagonists, he brings their world crashing down around them even faster.

Stall becomes a local hero after he thwarts an attempted robbery of his restaurant with surprising precision, killing the assailants. Among the unwanted visitors this brings on is a one-eyed Ed Harris, who claims to have known Stall in his former life as a Philadelphia mobster. It's a Rashomonic quandary: Who do you believe?

Though I've enjoyed almost all of Cronenberg's many films, his last two have been his best.

After years of reeking brutality writ large on the screen in films like the chilling "Dead Ringers" and the simply disturbing "Crash," 2002's "Spider" marked a definite turning point in which Cronenberg began focusing on the consequences as much as the horrific acts themselves. In that flick, Ralph Fiennes delivers his finest performance among many as a mentally disturbed man who finally confronts the moment in his childhood that drove him to madness.

Likewise in "Violence," it's the moments before and after the violent acts that matter most. In many ways its a simple story, taken from a graphic novel by John Wagner andVince Locke, and we find out the truth about Stall fairly early on. It's the fallout that really hits home, burned into our brains by two of the best performances you'll see on the big screen this year.

As Stall, Viggo Mortensen is on a consistent slow burn, never tipping his hand until he has to about who he really is. Bello is even better. We believe every moment as everything she believes in is ripped from her by fear and distrust, and its often painful and uncomfortable to watch.

An aside: As violence envelops Tom Stall, his son learns to mimic what he sees around him, leading to two intense moments you won't soon forget. As these unfolded on screen, the woman behind me felt the need to yell very loudly, not exactly a "yee-haw," but definitely a joyful noise. Though she was clearly a part of the audience Cronenberg was trying to reach, she completely missed all of the points he made.

Demko's DVD shelf

Let's make this week a tribute to the great nation of Canada. It's often easy to forget they've given us so much more than Bryan Adams.

How I wish I could have gone to "Degrassi Junior High." This Canadian series came out in the early '80s and ran for three years, plus an additional two as "Degrassi High," on PBS in this country. It was a welcome companion to its American counterpart, the sublimely silly "Saved By the Bell."

Though "Degrassi" was as heavy on the melodrama as the sudsiest of soap operas and the kids seemed to confront a different after-school special issue each week, it was also very real and very funny, a predecessor to the sorely missed "Freaks and Geeks" (www.freaksandgeeks.com).

You can now revisit these cool kids all over again as "Degrassi Junior High: The Complete Collection," hits DVD this week. You can buy it at www.publicvideostore.org while supporting public television at the same time.

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