Wednesday, November 30, 2005

History of Violence

History of Violence surprised me on a number of levels. Expecting a typical Hollywood film in which a quiet, unassuming man is forced to return in glory to his bad-ass past, I was pleasantly surprised. Josh Olson’s screenplay is more interested in examining the ramifications of former mob killer Tom Stall’s past upon his present than in celebrating gore (though the film certainly offers its share of bloody violence). Each member of Stall’s family must process his dark side in their own way, and in fact, the film gives us access to their feelings more than his. This is a film about a family coming to terms with a dark secret.

Yet I was also surprised by the conventional structure of the storytelling. I could see each plot twist and turn from a mile away, and I’m not one of those people who tries to outthink a movie. Though the fine acting provides a powerful emotional foundation for the story, the script follows the dictates of the screenplay bible: with each reversal more a function of storytelling requirements than arising organically from the characters’ needs and actions.

In fact, little about this film is organic. In the opening scenes everyone works just a little too hard to create “familial bliss.” Maria Bello’s character, Edie Stall, shows more affection for her teenage son during breakfast than most parents show their children on their best day. The Stall parents not only remain in love and but also act like teenagers in the bedroom. They evidence little boredom or malaise and in fact seem to embrace the routines of life. Once their perfect happiness is self-consciously (and unbelievably) established, two random rowdy guys enter Tom’s diner and stir up trouble. After entering such a carefully constructed world of the ideal suburban life, the audience is supposed to accept random?

The violence in the film didn’t particularly shock me, but perhaps this is more a factor of the inundation of violence in our culture than a commentary about this film. As Joey Cusack, Tom Stall’s abandoned mobster identity, Stall killed many men. He proves himself quite a virtuoso with killing, culminating in a bloody face-off with his former boss/brother. But Tom’s struggle with his past plays second fiddle to the drama played out at home: the sheriff who must try to get to the heart of why gangsters have shown up in town looking for Tom, Tom’s son who adopts violence to handle a bully at school, and Tom’s wife who tries to embrace the violence within him.

Watching the family fight to survive, their reconciliation results less from an honest dialogue about the truth than a mutual decision to simply move on. Edie Stall lies to the sheriff to protect her husband, Tom’s son helps him kill the bad guys, and Edie accepts Tom back into her home with a wordless look. The film does not condemn violence so much as embrace it as a necessary element for survival.

Director David Cronenberg includes graphic sexuality within this story of physical violence. While fighting with Tom, Edie succumbs to his rough advances and they fuck on the steps inside their home. The encounter is brutal, as evidenced by Edie’s bruises shown in a later scene.

The scene disturbs me because Cronenberg spends a good deal of time filming the violence of the sex but does not show us the characters commenting upon it later. Did Edie enjoy this rough sex? What percentage of the intercourse was coerced and what part was a willing subjection to Tom’s will? Is Edie discovering a latent violence within herself, or is she merely trying to understand her husband on his own terms? Are we to believe that all women enjoy being thrown around, or is this scene unique to these characters in this particular situation?

Can this scene be portrayed without political ramifications? Statistics for domestic violence are notoriously unreliable (many women keep silent due to fear and many that make a statement to the police retract their statements for the same reason). That said, one study finds that nearly 1 in 3 adult women experience at least one physical assault by a partner during adulthood ( The Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network estimates that someone (male or female) is sexually assaulted every two and a half minutes (for more information about how they calculated this statistic, visit

With numbers like these, Tom’s violence towards Edie leads me to question whether Cronenberg has been responsible in his portrayal of sexual violence within the film—to what end does he incorporate this almost rape? What do the characters learn from the event? What is the audience intended to take from this scene?

I have said before that I like my movies messy, and in many ways, I find the silences within this film intriguing: allowing the actors to speak through their actions rather than their words allows for powerful and moving filmmaking. But with an issue as complicated as violence, I can’t help but wonder what statement Cronenberg wants to make: that violence is inherited? That one can never truly escape from an inherent bestiality? Or that humans themselves will go to great lengths to survive? There are no answers here, but I wouldn’t mind a more thorough examination of the questions.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Walk the Line

In his review of Walk the Line, David Denby of the New Yorker noted similarities between this film and last year’s Ray Charles biopic Ray. In both films, a country boy finds fame as a singer by creating a unique sound. Both men suffer the loss of a family member in their youth, and both fight a drug addiction as an adult. Luckily, in all the places that Ray is heavy handed, James Mangold’s Walk the Line offers a soft touch.

A few months ago, the media reported trauma on the set of Walk the Line, stating that Joaquin Phoenix collapsed due to his method acting employment of personal memories of his own brother’s death (we still miss you, River) to channel John Cash’s memories of his older brother’s demise. Phoenix, of course, reported that all of this hooplah was bunk, and I have no doubt he was completely sincere in his rebuttal.

Yet seeing this film, I understand why reporters jumped to such an erroneous conclusion. The scene in which Johnny describes his brother’s death to young June Carter demonstrates the power of Phoenix’s performance. Mangold doesn’t need to demonstrate Johnny’s angst through some daydream of being drowned in water (one of the most ridiculous scenes in Ray). He simply allows Phoenix to act, and the quiet intensity of his performance in this scene makes believers of every audience member: not only is he Johnny Cash, but he is an incredibly moving Johnny Cash.

Ray needed to play up the death of Ray Charles’ brother because the film lacked an emotional core. Ray, in essence, was simply a biopic of a man, without a central relationship to tug our heart strings other than Ray’s many failed relationships. Director Taylor Hackford attempts to cover Ray’s troubled marriage, his relationship with his music managers, his struggle with racism, and his drug addiction. Each element of Ray Charles’ story is only loosely connected in the film.

Walk the Line, however, makes for a more successful movie because at its center, it is a love story. Though Mangold examines Cash’s drug use, his abuse and recovery are continually connected to Cash’s desire for June Carter (overly simplistic, perhaps, but successful storytelling). The film barely mentions Cash’s relationship with his band members, portrays the other women in Cash’s life exclusively through montage scenes, and almost completely overlooks his relationship with his children. Rather than detracting from his portrait of a man, however, these oversights allow Mangold to more deeply develop the main story between Cash and Carter.

Films about famous people are fun to watch because of the adrenaline rush of seeing an unknown become known: usually through a montage of whirlwind concert scenes and screaming fans. But without a strong emotional component, no biopic can truly touch us. Walk the Line employs the cultural mores of the time to make a martyr of June Carter, twice divorced and in love with a married man. Johnny Cash chased June Carter shamelessly, and the film takes full advantage of their profession to create a climactic moment of union for these two star-crossed lovers during a concert. Providing Carter with an understandable and sympathetic conflict makes this moment of union all the more satisfying.

The music is great, too. Phoenix and Witherspoon do their own singing, which means we are spared bad lip synching, thank goodness. The credits offer the only time the audience hears the real Johnny Cash and June Carter sing (reason enough to stick around for the credits). This brief moment of the singers certainly exposes a few discrepancies between the real deal and the actors impersonating: Phoenix’s voice lacks something of the resonance and complexity of Cash’s, while Witherspoon’s sound is simply too pure to replicate Carter. But Phoenix and Witherspoon use their voices to completely embody their characters in the moment of the scene. These concert scenes are less about whether they sound like Cash and Carter than whether you believe them as two people in love, expressing themselves in the only way they can—on stage.

The women in the film do not come off terribly well. Johnny Cash’s mother, who evidences a bit of a personality in the first few moments of the film, barely speaks in the later scenes in which she appears briefly. You’d think she might have some opinion about the terrible breach between her son and husband, but we will never know based on this movie.

June Carter’s dilemma is a uniquely feminine one: moralists condemn her for the actions men get away with every day. When confronted by a shop woman, who criticizes Carter for acting in opposition to her ”good” parents’ teachings by getting divorced, June shamefacedly apologizes for letting down the shop woman, a complete stranger. Though the film doesn’t much comment upon this glaring gender inequality, moments like these deepen the audience’s sense of the high stakes for Carter in this love affair.

Johnny Cash’s first wife doesn’t receive as much attention in the film. Real life daughter of John and Vivian Cash, Kathy, condemned the film’s portrayal of her mother, and she has good reason to do so. The film portrays Vivian as a demanding nag, refusing Cash's efforts to connect with her by sharing his career triumphs. When Vivian declares that she wants from Johnny “all the you promised me!” I squirmed in my seat—every man’s worst nightmare of the crazy, shrewish wife. A film made from Vivian’s perspective would tell a remarkably different story. Rather than make Vivian seem vicious when she tells June Carter to stay the hell away from her children, a film about Vivian would make her seem like a hero, protecting the integrity of her family. But as with other elements of Cash's life, Vivian is sacrificed to better tell the story of Johnny and June. So it goes with art.

Believable and moving performances, exciting concert scenes, understandable obstacles between the lovers, and a thrilling climax make for a pretty darn good movie. In fact, my biggest complaint would be that I want more: Johnny Cash remains something of an enigma and his refusal to leave his wife makes him seem weak and cruel to both his wife and Carter. The film presents him as a man who wanders through life letting things happen to him: as Carter tells him, “you should take credit for something sometime.” Yet the one thing he can own is his persistent pursuit of Carter. Focusing upon this strength in Cash's nature—his devotion to June Carter—the movie succeeds as a love story and entertaining holiday fare.