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Everything’s gone wrong: (l-r) Bello and Mortensen in A History of Violence.

The Killer Inside
By Laura Leon

A History of Violence

Directed 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, husband, boss?

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 reality.

Almost Dickens

Oliver Twist

Directed 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 memorable effort.

—Ann Morrow

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