The Art of Bodily Horror

A History of Violence director David Cronenberg talks about history and violence


Ever since its world premiere at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival, critics have heaped praise on A History of Violence, director David Cronenberg and screenwriter Josh Olsen's tale of Indiana diner owner Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen), his wife, Edie (Maria Bello), and the act of heroism that catapults Tom into the spotlight while causing his long-buried alter ego—a Philadelphia gangster named Joey Cusack—to be unearthed. And in recent months, the gravy train has only accelerated: there have been acting prizes from the critics' groups in New York and Los Angeles, two Golden Globe nominations (including best dramatic motion picture) and scores of "10 best" lists (including the two published in these pages last week). The movie is also, in box-office terms, Cronenberg's most popular since his 1986 remake of The Fly, having grossed some $30 million in North America and an additional $20 million internationally since opening in September. But the news is not all good: factor in two decades of inflation—plus the fact that the film was widely promoted as the most "mainstream" of the Canadian director's career—and it becomes clear that A History of Violencehasn't been embraced by the general public in quite the same way it has been by the press. In a reversal of the usual movie-publicity routine, by which filmmakers are available for interviews only during the short window of time before a film's release, I sat down with Cronenberg over lunch in New York early last month to discuss his movie, its reception and the art of bodily horror.

OC Weekly: Given the almost unanimous critical acclaim for A History of Violence, I was surprised, once the film opened in general release, to hear from friends who saw it with public audiences that the reaction was much more divided, with some audience members applauding at the conclusion and others booing loudly. And this schism continues in what has been written about the film in the user forums on movie websites like the IMDB and Metacritic, where one of my favorite postings reads, "My friend Tanya and I just caught a 2:05 p.m. showing at the Grove in Hollywood. And let me tell you folks, this baby made Predator 2 look likeOn the Waterfront."

David Cronenberg: Well, I try not to read too much of what goes on on IMDB or a lot of those other places, because I think, not to be evasive, but the Internet community is pretty nuts. I mean, if you go on to the Nikkon D70 forum, you'll find people saying the most outrageous things. They get extremely passionate and even murderously angry—and this is just a camera, a camera that you don't even have to buy! So, I take all of that with a huge grain of salt. These are people sitting home alone at night and all their energy is going into these discussions. And I think if you just met these people, talked to them face to face, they wouldn't be like that. But also, some critics, like Amy Taubin, have said they don't think the movie is mainstream at all, and I guess that they're right. It weirdly reminds me of Crash in that at first it has the feel of a standard kind of movie—you look at the cast, you look at what the plot might be and the style and the professionalism of the production and everything, and it feels like sort of a Hollywood-type movie. But then it doesn't follow all the rules. It subverts them.

Indeed, even in Cannes, there was the much-discussed incident in which, during the first press screening for the film, the Austrian critic Alexander Horwath loudly berated some other journalists for laughing at scenes that they thought were supposed to be funny and he clearly didn't.

That's because the movie mixes tones in a way that they're not normally mixed. It suddenly makes the audience wonder: Did the filmmaker know this was funny? And if he didn't know it was funny, then it's a mistake. But if he did know it's funny, then it's brilliant! So, yes, I've been assuring people that those are actual jokes, even though I don't personally see how some people can't realize that some of the jokes are just plain jokes. I think the standard template for Hollywood movies is that you set the tone and then you do the tone, and if it's supposed to be a sad scene, then everything's sad—the music is sad, the lighting is sad, the acting is sad. You don't put other stuff in there, because it's perceived to weaken the film. Something I've been doing with [composer] Howard Shore for a long time, for example, is making music that doesn't just support what's there; it's capable of delivering a whole other layer of discourse. But that too is not a normal thing to do. The normal Hollywood use of music is that you accentuate what's already there or you compensate for what you'd hoped would be there and isn't, so if a scene isn't as emotionally powerful as you'd hoped, you put lots of emotionally powerful music under it.

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