(Note: I didn't have the opportunity to review A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE for GAY CITY NEWS, and the amount of ink that's been spilled on it makes me reluctant to do a full-length review specifically for this site. However, I did want to make some informal, blog-like comments.)


 A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE does for the thriller what Todd Haynes' FAR FROM HEAVEN did for the melodrama, placing everything in quotation marks while still taking the characters' dilemmas seriously and refraining from drowning in irony. It may be perverse to say that a film called A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE isn't really about violence, but that's not the level on which it engaged me. I've read several reviews that compare it to Michael Haneke's FUNNY GAMES and say  "the violence is presented as exciting, then the audience sees its ugly consequences and feels implicated." I never found the violence cathartic or thrilling. (No one cheered it at my screening.) On the other hand, apart from the very brief shot of the twitching, half-blown-off face of the guy who attacks Tom at the diner, none of it had the shocking impact that {SPOILER} did in Haneke's HIDDEN.

What this film is ultimately about, I think, is a vision of American life as a vast role-playing game (with life-or-death consequences, of course).  William Hurt and Ed Harris give deliberately strange,  swaggering performances. However, in another register and context, the actor who plays Tom's son seems equally artificial. Several early scenes make the theme of role-playing pretty explicit. Tom's son is willing to take the beta-male role of the school  "faggot" and doesn't understand why the bully can't rationally accept that. The two sex scenes also illustrate this point - when Maria Bello is excited by the badass qualities she's just discovered in her husband, it's no different from her putting on the cheerleader outfit to excite him. The film's visions of small-town America and how gangsters act are equally - and deliberately - clichéd and drawn from pop culture archetypes. It's a kissing cousin to the world of movie nerd simulacra in Mitsuo Yangaimachi's WHO'S CAMUS ANYWAY?, where a girl turns into a character from a Truffaut film, but played out on a more larger scale. 

When Tom reveals that he was Crazy Joey Cusack, it brings about a crisis: these roles start becoming permeable. (Also, DEAD RINGERS and SCANNERS come to mind.) Mortensen's peformance in the final half hour is extraordinary, largely because it's so inscrutable. Most of the time, I have no idea what he's trying to express, and I mean that as a compliment. I don't think that Joey is necessarily any more "real" than Tom - as with the villain in AUDITION, one gets the impression that he's choosing from a limited selection of secondhand roles. At the end, Tom/Joey doesn't seem to have reached any resolution about who he is. The closing family dinner is loaded with tension, and throwing away his gun isn't played as any kind of definitive redemption. A return to either persona may be untenable. A more upbeat film would place Mortensen's character on the path to a more authentic existence. A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE is not that film.  eXistenZ ends by revealing several times that we're watching a game and leaving us uncertain whether the ending takes place in the real world. Reality seems just as elusive is A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE, which ends by affirming identity's instability and the desperation with which its characters fit complex personalities into pre-determined slots. The crisis has only just begun.