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The Hunt For The Worst Movie Of All Time: A History Of Violence

When A History of Violence first premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2005, Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott reported in an early version of a New York Times “blog” that there were boos in the audience. At least that’s how I remember it. The New York Times has done a bad job of maintaining their early blog experiments about old Cannes Film Festivals. It was something to the effect of people booing and Manohla Dargis being surprised and also maybe she yelled at someone in the audience to shut up? This story is starting to sound more and more far-fetched the more I recreate it from memory, but based on her glowing review, which IS still available, it’s clear that were someone to have booed in the audience, she would certainly disagree with them, if not to the extreme extent of actually shouting them down. The point of all this apocrypha, I suppose, is to point out that from it’s very beginning, David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence was a movie that spurred debate. Some people liked it very much, and some people shouted at it from their theater seats like a bunch of Joes Wilson.

As it turns out, I happen to be in the former camp. WOWOWOWOW! Did your head just spin around on your neck so fast that it twisted right up and popped clean off?

A History of Violence is based on a graphic novel that I haven’t read, so if that colors your opinion of my opinion, fair enough, but I am just letting you know the truth right at the beginning. Speaking of beginnings (A History of Segues), the movie opens at a motel where there are some mean jerks doing terrible things. Yuck. Totally hate these dudes! They are on a cross-country murdertrip, which eventually brings them to Small Town, Indiana, and into a Perfect Little Diner (I think that’s actually the name of it) run by mild-mannered Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen). When they start getting real rapey and gun-pully, Viggo Mortensen smashes them in the face with coffee pots, and blows their brains out. One of them goes flying through a plate glass window. Now Viggo Mortensen is on the news because that is where American Heroes are. The next day, ANOTHER mean jerk shows up. He might be one of the Men in Black? Except that he’s trying to get people to REMEMBER things instead of FORGET them. Namely, he wants Viggo Mortensen to remember that his name isn’t Tom Stall at all, but actually it is Joey Cusack, a notorious mobster from Philly. He makes everyone very nervous with his scarred up face and his goons and his attitude in general. When he tries to kidnap Viggo Mortensen’s son in order to coerce him into coming back to Philly (where he will presumably be killed), Viggo Mortensen kills everybody on his front lawn (well, and his son kills one of them, which is pretty chill) and that is how his wife learns that she is married to a liar. They have some very aggressive sex on the stairs. Yowza. Tired of being in the doghouse with his wife (don’t you guys hate it when wives won’t let you lead a double life as a murderer?) Viggo Mortensen goes back to Philly to confront his mob boss brother, and by confront I mean kill. He takes his shirt off and stands by a private pond and thinks about stuff. Then he drives home to his wife and children and sits down at the table with his eyes all puffy and no one says anything and Viggo Mortensen and his wife look at each other. Do you remember how at the end of Knocked Up you’re not really sure whether or not Katherine Heigl and Seth Rogen will stay together? It’s like that. But NO LAUGHING.

To go back to Manohla Dargis’s review for just a moment, because she makes a point very well–whether or not you agree with the point–about what the movie is trying to do:

“A History of Violence” might have easily been called “A History of America,” but it would sell both Mr. Cronenberg’s art and his purpose short to reduce this film to an ideology. While transparently set in small-town America (Ontario passing for Indiana), the sheer unreality of the hamlet initially makes it clear that this story is not taking place in the here and the now, but in a copy of the world that looks – wouldn’t you know it – a lot like a movie. Mr. Cronenberg, a Canadian, is taking aim at this country, to be sure. But he is also taking aim at our violence-addicted cinema, those seductive, self-heroicizing self-justifications we sell to the world. Perversely, though, the more violent this film becomes – in time, the blood flows all the way to Philadelphia – the more real Tom and his family seem. He kills, therefore they are.

This seems like a perfectly textbook reading of the movie, although I’m not really sure this kind of trick is ever even possible to pull off. The problem with condemning an audience for its bloodlust is that in order to do so you have to give the audience exactly what it wants, and so the audience remains unchastened. If, as Manohla points out elsewhere in her review, the violence in this movie is ALSO exciting, then its deconstruction and/or criticism of how/why we are excited by violence seems kind of moot. To quote her, we are, therefore we are. But so, whether it proves its thesis or not, it’s actually an entertaining to watch. The college kids can have their Marxist interpretation of the film’s exploitation, I just like the part when Viggo Mortensen breaks that dude’s arm using his armpit! BOOM! Look out for the garrote!

I also just do not know what is not to like about a guy in a dark suit and sunglasses walking into a diner run by a guy named Tom and calling him Joey. It’s called INTERESTING PLOT TWIST. Look it up.

But mostly, uh, HELLO, MARIA BELLO.

Obviously, there are some people who disagree. Both in the city of Cannes, France, and also on this website. This movie has been nominated for the Hunt many times. But ever since I read that first report about the early screenings, I have yet to understand quite what might elicit “boos” about it. Even if one were to dislike this movie, it seems like a pretty strenuous and over-taxing argument to claim that it’s “the worst.” How could that be? I look forward to the counter-arguments in the comments. (Sort of.) (I mean, I look forward to naps and receiving presents. But I am curious about the counter-arguments.)

Of course, watching the movie for the column, even though I had seen it before and knew that I liked it, and even though I continue to like it still after a second viewing, I was certainly on the lookout for what was bad, or at the very least, for what might be perceived as bad, and I did notice in this reviewing that there’s a weird pacing to some of the scenes. People talk really slowly, and some of things they say come out really weird, as if the scene had first been performed by a group of ESL foreigners, and then re-performed here, some kind of Alta Vista Babelfish of acting through which everything comes out tonally wrong. For example:

Haha. YOU’RE A HERO, DAD! (Also: what 17-year-old baseball playing American dude with a punk girlfriend and a rivalry with the captain of the baseball team wants to hang out in the living room and drink tea with his parents?) So, that is definitely an overall tonal issue, it just didn’t really bother me personally.

Or maybe the people who don’t like this movie were just really offended by the egregious Honey Bunches of Oats product placement.

Or the WEIRD homo-erotic hugs the men were always sharing.

I don’t know! You tell me, grouches! Not that it really matters. You’re wrong. Somewhat forced cereal eating scenes aside, this movie is great. CASE DISMISSED.

Next week: American Beauty. As always, please leave your suggestions in the comments or in an email. And if you haven’t done so already, please consult the Official Rules.