One of my favourite movies is Lost in Translation. I’ve watched that movie about 20 times. I love the attention to the mundane, to the simple details of the characters’ tenure in Limbo. The dialogue is sparse, but important, and I think the performances are subtle and understated.
Where I see loving detail, my mother sees not much happening. Long shots of people sitting, or talking, or swimming – no plot, no conflict, nothing really important to the characters. Dull.
A History of Violence is a film in the same mould. It’s laconic, and in no hurry to tell its story. From the opening sequence, you never really feel that time is an issue: the story will happen when it happens. And then, after 100 minutes, the credits roll and you’re left trying to figure out what the point actually was.
Turns out, the story is about a former mobster who’s put himself into his own private witness protection program, and is outted by an unfortunate moment of heroism. He then returns to the place of his former evil ways, and in a kind of redemptive act, kills his elder brother.
I know what you’re thinking: that sounds like a pretty obvious story. But it’s not, largely due to the snail-like pacing, and the director’s careful evasion of anything that would build suspense or fear.
So it’s a movie with a lot of problems that IMHO boil down to a “tell don’t show” approach to almost every aspect of the characters, their backstory, and their situation. Where Lost in Translation is carefully showing that the characters are suspended from reality in a Japanese Limbo, A History of Violence carefully spends long shots showing that the characters are living their ordinary lives.
The other main problem with it is that the director is devoted to the notion of anti-climax. Every time you think there will be a definitive statement about the characters, it’s subverted or avoided. The two major confrontations are similarly low-key.
What makes this all interesting, and why I’m writing about it at all, is that it’s also reasonably clear that the director has made these decisions consciously. This movie isn’t accidentally bad – it’s deliberate. Slavish adherence to his source material might be an easy answer – but I think that there’s more to it than that. Why has the director chosen to make his movie so underwhelming, or looking at it another way, as what kind of story is this movie a success?
It’s a difficult movie to pigeon-hole. It starts off leading you to think it may be a Rodriguez/Tarantino-style movie, with amoral sadists encountering ordinary mortals. The pair who constitute the prologue could be the Gecko brothers, and the movie about their encounter with a a good guy capable of kicking their ass. For the amount of build-up they get, they’re disposed of awfully quickly.
So quickly, you start to think that perhaps this is a Western: building up two antagonists until a show-down. But this too doesn’t really pan out, as once the initial story-generating event passes, nobody gets much of a kleos boost.
Nor does it work as either a story of redemption or fall – it’s no Carlito’s Way.
I next turned my mind to thinking about whether this was intended to be an intense character study – putting the human condition under a microscope. And that does fit, kinda. But again, the superficiality of most interactions, and the “tell don’t show” approach to the characters’ dynamic make this a weak reading.
Eventually I’ve decided that it’s a left-field version of the Hero’s Journey. It has the classic steps of initiation, dithering, enhancement, resolution and return – it’s all there. As an explanation of the Hero in that limited and specific sense, it does make sense.
Which leaves the question of why they made a comic and then a movie with such an obscure and emotionally distant focus, when far more powerful story telling methods and objectives were available. The basic story here has the potential to be a really gripping drama, and ask some fundamental questions about identity, which it largely eschews. Perhaps the answer here is simply that the film-makers wished to be distinct from the crowd of similarly-conceived stories. If so, I nevertheless feel like it was a failure; but a more interesting failure than it first appeared.