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In cold blood
David Cronenberg’s study of Violence
History lessons


Cronenberg looks back without anger

Film history — and who knows what other kind — might have been different had David Cronenberg directed Top Gun. Surely the movie would not have turned out like Tony Scott’s prolonged advertisement for high-tech warfare that celebrated the age of Reagan and laid the path for George Bush’s infamous carrier landing.

"Top Gun was a script sent to me by an agent," Cronenberg recalls. "If I had wanted to pursue it, I don’t know whether a studio would have been interested in me or not, so I can’t say I was offered it. But I would have ruined it. Top Gun the flop: it’s not good to have Ishtar on your résumé, let’s put it that way. Still, I blew my chance to save the world. Dammit."

The Top Gun offer came after Cronenberg had scored at the box office with The Dead Zone (1983) and The Fly (1986). After his last two films, the critically lauded but commercially challenged eXistenZ (1999) and Spider (2002), the studios haven’t exactly come knocking. Then the screenplay for A History of Violence came his way.

" It was a script my agent sent me. And I said, I can’t do Spider again, in the sense that I can’t do an independent film where the financing is constantly falling through and I don’t get paid. So I’ll look at anything I think is interesting, but maybe I should look at things that are set up in terms of financing and are close to being green-lit movies, even if they’re at studios. And so this was one of the scripts that was sent to me that way, and they hadn’t been thinking of me before at all, but they did get excited when . . . they just never thought I’d be interested."

At $32 million, History is Cronenberg’s most expensive movie. But with great budgets come great responsibilities. Was he encouraged to dumb it down?

"One of the first things we did was I had a meeting with the executives at New Line. Basically, not literally but I suppose subliminally, I was assuring them that I wouldn’t turn this into Spider and we all would agree on what the movie is going to be and have to get that very clear, so that you’re all making the same movie, because if you’re not, that’s when disaster happens. And the other thing was just to assure everyone that I was a collaborative person and that I would listen to them and read all their notes, which I do anyway, but they don’t know that. So once you agree on a script, the budget, the cast, it’s just moviemaking as usual."

With the addition of test screenings. Did the graphic violence in the film prove distressing to mainstream audiences?

"We did one [test screening]. In Pasadena. It was a very good screening. I did tweak it a little afterward. What was most interesting was that they really did get all the jokes. They do squeal when they see it [the violence], but I don’t think it’s a bad squeal. On a certain frisson level, they kind of like it in a weird way."

Despite the high stakes, Cronenberg is philosophical about the film’s success.

" I have had a hit before. The Fly was my big hit actually, the number-one film in North America for three weeks in a row, and I still couldn’t get Dead Ringers made."

He hopes now he’ll get to make his adaptation of Martin Amis’s London Fields. Of course, there’s always Top Gun II.


Related Link

A history of violence's official Web site

The title of David Cronenberg’s adaptation of the graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke is open to interpretation. Is it the police term describing a perp with a bloody past? An attempt to explain the causes and development of violent behavior? Or an evocation of history in general — for what history isn’t one of violence? The film answers to each of these definitions, though with such cold-blooded efficiency and cryptic detachment, it may evoke more admiration than pleasure.

That’s partly because this is the director’s most generic movie. But what genre, exactly? Cronenberg himself has suggested a John Ford Western, and indeed History acts out the perennial conflict between independence and conformity, between aggressive anarchy and domestic tranquility, that has sparked Westerns from Stagecoach to Unforgiven. But John Ford? Maybe David Lynch, or Luis Buñuel — two directors as entomologically minded as Cronenberg.

Not that there are any actual insects on screen — maybe a first for a director whose résumé includes The Fly, Spider, and M. Butterfly. Unless you include the human kind, like the two killers at the start of the film whose history of violence litters their wake. Contrasting with their gelid ruthlessness is the homespun decency of Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen, whose close-ups tell a violent story in themselves), proprietor of a diner in rustic Millbrook, Indiana. He wears an apron; his lawyer wife, Edie (Maria Bello), wears the pants in the family. But life is good and wholesome — though their teenage son is bored stiff and can’t wait to get out of town.

That all changes when our two killers enter the diner and Tom’s history of violence begins. Put in a tough spot, he displays a surprising talent, his neighbors call him a hero, and news crews pursue him. More troubling, an ominous scarred stranger (Ed Harris) insists he knows him. Meanwhile, Tom no longer knows himself, and his nascent history of violence threatens to turn into his fate.

Fans of Sin City or The Road to Perdition or the Wagner & Locke original might not recognize History as an adaptation of a graphic novel. Except for Ed Harris’s Dick Tracy–like black suit and a couple of inky settings later in the film, it shuns such garishness, and Cronenberg shoots his story, or history, with the flat remorselessness of a documentary. He regards his subject with scientific detachment. But film favors violence over history, and the brief explosions of blood and pulp are a relief from the drab passages surrounding them. Even the sex is better. Before, Tom and Edie engage in innocent role playing; afterward, they ravish each other like arachnids or jungle animals.

Maybe that’s why violence always trumps history. It’s a lot more fun. Cronenberg subtly traces violence to its origins in Cain and Abel and even posits an ambiguous hope for reconciliation. But in the end, it’s the violence that people will remember.

Issue Date: September 23 - 29, 2005
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