gone wrong: (l-r) Bello and Mortensen in A History
History of Violence
by David Cronenberg
Like a modern-day Shane, diner owner Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen)
ambles through the sleepy town of Millbrook, Ind., sharing
friendly hellos with fellow townspeople, pouring cups of joe
and flashing a warm smile to his everyday patrons—and representing,
in the words of his wife Edie (Maria Bello), all that is good
with humanity. But like Shane, Tom seems to have a dark secret,
a violent past life that shakes loose from some great beyond
after he instinctively, and violently, saves his customers
from the carnage about to be inflicted by two murderers. As
the scarfaced Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris) wonders, half in jest,
just days after the diner incident, just how did Tom—or Joey,
as Fogarty keeps referring to him—get so good at killing people?
Going way back to the quiet tone and pace of his vastly underappreciated
The Dead Zone, director David Cronenberg provides a
deceivingly quiet tale of the American dream unhinged in the
wake of the equally American fascination with death and violence.
Like all good westerns (although this is a contemporary tale),
A History of Violence features a reluctant protagonist
forced to confront evil in order to save the day. Only, in
this case, the evil is not simply some hired gun come to town,
but the protagonist’s own past. What is at stake is the lives
and fabric of the Stall family.
Adapted for the screen by Josh Olson from a graphic novel
by John Wagner and Vince Locke, the movie is such that its
quiet power doesn’t necessarily draw you in until days after
viewing. It’s only then, after you’ve spent time grousing
to yourself about various seemingly unresolved matters that
you realize, with some chagrin, that that’s the whole point.
While the filmmakers keep us wondering for some time whether
or not there’s merit to what Fogarty says about Tom, the suspense
really comes from the fact that Mortensen plays Stall as such
a sweet-natured, down-home kind of guy. But when he springs
into action, once threatened, it’s the kind of primal change
that can only have occurred with some substantial underpinnings.
How, and where, do two such disparate personalities merge,
and which of the two—or how much or either—is father, lover,
Still (and this is where Cronenberg and company really imbue
the story with its meat), while we can accept that Tom is
pretty adept at protecting his family, we can’t help but sense
that vague unease, the question that lingers and wreaks havoc
with our guts—for how long? And, ultimately, from whom?
A History of Violence delivers tense and exciting shoot-em-up
moments, but the film also lingers on the effect that such
violence has on all it touches. Not only do Edie and the kids
have to figure out who they are in light of Tom’s “real” history,
but they suddenly come face to face with brutality. Their
domestic lives are colored with it, from Tom’s angry reaction
to son Jack’s (Ashton Holmes) sarcasm to the Stalls’ lovemaking.
A family meal of meatloaf is achingly depicted, representing
as it does the once normal and everyday, now hopelessly lost.
It’s in such quiet moments that A History of Violence
really delivers, leaving us with the fairly subversive notion
that the hint of violence exists all along, beating barely
perceptibly underneath the ordinariness we cling to as our
by Roman Polanski
Of the many screen versions of Oliver Twist, the new
one by Roman Polanski ranks high. It’s true to the Dickens
novel, beautifully art-directed, and full of wonderful acting.
Though it doesn’t compare to the most beloved adaptations—the
sweeping 1948 version by David Lean, and Oliver!, the
1968 musical by Carol Reed—this one has all the advantages
of current technology and psychology, which the director employs
with skill and verve.
Polanski and screenwriter Ronald Harwood (screenwriter of
The Pianist, for which Polanski won the director’s
Oscar) deftly avoid comparisons to the aforementioned classics.
Oliver’s mother is unknown, bypassing Lean’s famous opening
sequence in which she trudges to the parish workhouse to give
birth. And this Oliver (Barney Clark) bears little resemblance
to the blond moppet that dominated the musical. Clark’s orphan
is wan and timid, though capable of a show of dignity when
pressed. But he’s only one character in a teeming panorama
of Dickensian color and eccentricity.
With whizzing pacing, the film covers Oliver’s life from the
poorhouse to his recruitment into the pickpocket brigade headed
by Fagin (Ben Kingsley). Against bursting-with-realism backdrops,
he encounters a parade of characters from all walks of life,
all of them briefly but vividly presented (and acted), and
each with a deft exaggeration of their comic, poignant, or
cruel personalities. Polanski, who was orphaned by the Holocaust,
takes a balanced and stoic approach to the social ills of
Victorian England, and none of the characters is completely
good or evil, while the facts of their existence are illustrated
with meticulous nuance. The harsher effects of poverty and
injustice are visually softened: At the workhouse, the boys
do not appear to be starving, but one of them displays a bizarre
consequence of malnutrition by pacing restlessly all night.
And the pickpockets—Harry Eden’s Artful Dodger is especially
appealing—revel in practicing a sort of reverse exploitation.
The most fully realized character is Fagin. Kindly but obviously
ill in mind and body, he corrupts the boys for own his miserliness.
In return, he offers them affection and freedom, and compared
to the workhouse, it’s a benevolent exchange. In the shadow
of Ron Moody’s Fagin, Kingsley creates an original, and is
especially expressive with the consequences of Fagin’s betrayal
of Oliver. Jamie Foreman as the vicious Bill Sykes is less
successful, and his thuggish thief does suffer in comparison
to Oliver Reed’s. The climactic murder is the film’s weakest
sequence, and afterward, Bill’s desperate flight seems oddly
slack, as though Polanski were avoiding anything too harrowing.
As such, it’s all of piece with this enjoyable but not quite