Sunday, January 15, 2006

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Anatomy of an unbelievable scene

The New York Times' Arts section has three articles by three Times movie critics "looking deep inside three of the year's most haunting scenes."

In "Dark Truths of a Killing Love," Manohla Dargis looks at what most critics consider the pivotal scene in David Cronenberg's A History of Violence [WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD]:

Until the staircase sex, Mr. Cronenberg has encouraged us to look at Tom the way Edie sees him, to believe the image she has unquestioningly accepted of the good father, the loving husband, the Everyman and the hero. "You are the best man I have ever known," she whispers to Tom after their first lovemaking. Through her ignorance and slow awakening, Edie has served as our surrogate, but in this scene she becomes something else, something other. In a story of blood and vengeance, Mr. Cronenberg asks us to look at those who pick up guns in our name, protectors who whisper they love us with hands around our throats. And then, with this scene, he goes one better and asks us to look at those who open their hearts and bare themselves to such a killing love.

Edie's transformation from helpmate into a gangster's moll with a taste for a little rough trade is one of the more shocking turns in a film filled with hairpin turns of mood and tone. Throughout the staircase clash, Mr. Mortensen visibly changes from Tom to Joey and back again, his face and caresses alternately gentle and brutal. When Edie unleashes her fury with that slap she's reacting as much to Tom, the husband who has betrayed her, as to Joey, the stranger who has brought havoc into her life. Yet Tom's secret self is no noir-like contrivance; it's a manifestation of all that lies beneath, the ooze and shadows, the desire and dread, one that, in turn, bares Edie's secret self too. Here, in a simple American home, the repressed returns with a vengeance.

Dargis does a lovely job of deconstructing the scene, showing how details like Edie's wardrobe act as a harbinger for what's about to happen. And I suspect that Dargis' interpretation of what Cronenberg is going for are perfectly accurate.

There's just one thing -- that scene completely destroyed my willing sense of disbelief in the movie. Until that point, Maria Bello as Edie acts as our emotional barometer for the events that take place, and I found her responses completely believable -- indeed, they're the best thing in the film.

The idea, however, that at that particular moment on the staircase her character was going to find the violence and identity switches a turn-on was pretty damn ludicrous. Critics might have liked it because it touches on the theme of violence's hidden role in the American heartland, but as a resident of said heartland, the scene looked like pure Hollywood tripe. Edie's first reaction to the discovery of her husband's true identity -- in the hospital room -- was far more convincing.

The staircase moment in the film might have been perfectly staged, brimming with craftsmanship, and well acted -- but without the emotional resonance, it was impossible to be as invested in the characters for the rest of the flick. I think Maria Bello deserves an Oscar nomination -- for everything she did but that scene.

Everyone reacts to movies in different ways, so I'll ask the readers -- particularly the (five or so) women who read this blog and have seen A History of Violence. Did that scene make sense to you?

posted by Dan on 01.15.06 at 09:31 AM


I promise that I'm not normally one to read politics into every film I see (really, I'm not), but in this instance I think we're looking at a film that is a classic Cronenbergian critique of (if not attack on) American culture. I also think this was unquestionably one of the best handful of films of 2005.

For me, A History of Violence was at least partially an exercise in criticizing Americans for how they interact with violence, both in their popular culture and in the actions of their government. Relevent here, Bello's Edie represents the supplicant female American public to the Jekyll/Hyde Alpha Male of the American government.

Most of the time, our government presents itself as an altruistic provider and protector, upholding our values and traditions, acting as a force for good, but the reality underneath is a lot darker. We don't like to think of this way, but our government is a killer. When it decides to lash out, it can unleash a destructive power that is violent in the extreme, decidedly lethal, and overwhelming.

For us (the supplicant female and the American people), we talk a big game about wanting our government to be a force for good, but deep down we all, to one degree or another, passively benefit greatly from the Hyde side of our government, happily enjoying our share of the spoils. It's a bit of a cliche of evolutionary psych (or something), but we're just another female who talks about wanting to be with a nice guy, but who's internal imperative compels her into the arms of the bad boy.

This scene, then, is one of the most incisive moments of realism in the film. Both Tom/Joey and Edie have layed themselves bare, the truth is known to all, and they connect with a violent passion that is not at all unusual for an Alpha male "bad boy" and his supplicant female. It cuts through the filter of social programming and restraint, and further advances the critique of the passively complicit American public, which is very much a part of the World According to Cronenberg.

posted by: Peter Heller on 01.15.06 at 09:31 AM [permalink]


You talkin to me? Well, guess what? Didn't see it. I suspect the other four chicks who frequent your site didn't either, but I could be wrong. While I am a huge film buff, this didn't make the cut while it was in release (could still pick it up on video) because as a right-leaning film snob its blatantly anti-American bigotry was a huge turnoff. I hate Viggo--he's not sexy and he's obnoxious. Bad combo. My girlfriends didn't want to see it because it was too violent and/or artsy. My husband rejected it as too political/pompous. Like Brokeback Mountain (only moreso) the question is not would I see this movie, but can I find someone to go with? I suspect that if/when I do see it, my opinion will be closer to your own than to Manolo's.

posted by: Kelli on 01.15.06 at 09:31 AM [permalink]

Itīs just Cronenberg doing that thing he does. His films are basically about his obsessions and interests. Remember the sadomasochism in Shivers, Rabid, Videodrome, Dead Ringers, Crash?

But it doesnīt say anything about society, except that we are a society that has such filmmakers.

posted by: werner on 01.15.06 at 09:31 AM [permalink]

Err...there's more than 5 of us, Dan.

On the movie--well, sexuality is sometimes pretty cultural, too, and it doesn't surprise me that in a culture which celebrates violence (which I think is what HoV is about), Edie would find 'bad boy sex' exciting. I agree with you that it had no emotional resonance--but it was probably designed that way.

posted by: Mrs. Piggy on 01.15.06 at 09:31 AM [permalink]

As an admitted Cronenberg fan (full disclosure), the scene had a very clear emotional logic. The wife coming to grips with the actuality of a relationship she was too afraid to do without. It may not be PC or all that common (though I tend to think it's more common than not), but it made sense to me. And yes, count this as 6 women!

posted by: Admitted Fan on 01.15.06 at 09:31 AM [permalink]

7 women.

The scene worked completely for me. I agree with Peter, above, that the film was a metaphor -- but disagree with his characterization of Maria (and us) as "supplicants." I think Cronenberg's statement is that though our better angels may make us nauseous when we think of what we've "married," there is a part of us that wants that power, wants the permission to be violent.

With both things true, we have lots of choices. Do we try to go on as if nothing happened? Do we acknowledge what we've learned about ourselves? Do we participate willingly? Etc.

posted by: Louise on 01.15.06 at 09:31 AM [permalink]

8 women.

Ditto Peter, Admitted Fan and Louise.

posted by: pelikan on 01.15.06 at 09:31 AM [permalink]

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posted by: Pieter Bas on 01.15.06 at 09:31 AM [permalink]

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