Tuesday, August 08, 2006

2005 in review: #5

5. A History of Violence (David Cronenberg)

B-side: Oldboy (Park Chan-wook)

Most cinematic violence elicits an easy reaction- hand-to-hand combat is exciting, a serial killer with a knife is scary, a gaping wound is gross. But in life it’s hardly that simple. Severe violence causes a great deal of pain, and it changes everyone who is touched by it. Most reasonable adults aren’t especially eager to perpetuate violence without at least examining other options beforehand. These are two films- both based on comic books or their more respectable relative “graphic novels”- that problematize the violence wreaked by their characters.

A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE begins in an idyllic small town where little of consequence happens. Kindly Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen, excellent) runs a diner, his wife Edie (Maria Bello, giving a career-best performance) is a lawyer, and they have two children, a boy and a girl. Little of consequence happens in their world until two stickup men mosey into the diner one night and Tom overcomes and kills them. He’s proclaimed a hero by the townspeople, but the look on Tom’s face shows us that it’s not that simple- where did THIS guy come from? Turns out Tom has a violent past, and Cronenberg is smart enough to realize that while Tom can distance himself from that past through further violence, his peaceful world will never be the same. The film isn’t the shoot-‘em-up the plot summary might imply, but predominantly a domestic drama in which Tom and those around him have to reckon with the consequences of what they’ve done.

OLDBOY is a little more straightforward in its approach to violence- superficially it’s a revenge story in which a man hunts down the person responsible for imprisoning him for fifteen years. However, that doesn’t mean director Park is content to keep it that simple. After Oh Daesu (Choi Min-sik) is released from his captivity, his first few confrontations are slick and exciting, particularly the already-famous “hammer fight” in which Oh Daesu takes on a hallway full of rivals armed only with a claw hammer. However, the closer he comes to his target, the uglier the violence becomes. And what of the violence wreaked by the captor upon Oh Daesu both during the imprisonment and after he is released? There’s little catharsis for either party involved in this story. Revenge dramas must navigate a narrow passage between encouraging the audience’s bloodlust (like the WALKING TALL remake) and wringing their hands over the violence (see Park’s follow-up LADY VENGEANCE). Fortunately, OLDBOY avoids falling into either trap.

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