A History of Violence [2005]

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.

This entry was posted in Film and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to A History of Violence [2005]

  1. adrexia says:

    I loved A History of Violence. I saw it at the theatre when it came out (it was on when we were looking for something to watch). I don’t remember anything specific about why I liked it, because it was too long ago, but it succeeded in being much more than I expected it to be.

  2. mattcowens says:

    I’ve said rude things about this movie before. If I’d seen the trailer then not bothered with the fim itself I would have been a richer man (in terms of time spent not being bored). The trailer pretty much spells out exactly what the film’s about, then the film itself stretches that 2 minute premise to an hour and a half without adding anything I found engaging or itneresting.

    I’m not sure how I would have reacted to it if I hadn’t seen the trailer. I guess I’ll never know…

  3. I really liked it, but without watching it again, I couldn’t put that into detailed arguments. I do remember particularly liking the juxtaposition of the slow pace and character focus throughout the movie and then the frantic and cinematographically distinct climax. The movie as a whole isn’t slavishly adhering to the source material, by the way, the graphic novel as a completely different (and inferior, in my view) ending, but the tone of most of the movie is pretty similar. The graphic novel is in the Central branch of the Wellington Public Library.

    • Put me down as someone who didn’t like it (though I do like Lost in Translation). I found History of Violence to be just dull, erratic and inconsistent. The climax was cringeworthyingly bad IMO

  4. wyldcard says:

    A history of violence is very funny if you approach it as the 4th part of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. With the little blonde daughter as Gimli.

  5. wyldcard says:

    A history of violence is very funny if you approach it as the 4th part of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. With the little blonde daughter as Gimli.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s