Dark Truths of a Killing Love
NOT long after the release of "A History of Violence," a news report began making the e-mail rounds. The headline was a grabber - "David Cronenberg's On Set Public Sex Scenes." In an apparent bid to show his stars how to play their roles, the story read, "eccentric filmmaker David Cronenberg shocked his cast and crew on the set of new movie 'A History of Violence,' by publicly performing sex scenes with his wife." A friend and fellow fan of the film wrote me that this was "not the sort of thing the academy would support." Indeed.
Mr. Cronenberg's dedication to his art is impressive, but of course the entire story, quotes and all, was apocryphal. (I checked.) Even so, it is a testament to his vision as well as his film's visceral intensity that this fabrication didn't seem totally off the wall. As the mad genius behind freakouts like "Videodrome" and "Naked Lunch," dispatches from the id laden with protuberances, gasping orifices and all manner of goo, Mr. Cronenberg has fashioned some of the more squirmingly repellent sexualized imagery in cinema. If the gross-out factor is comparatively modest in "A History of Violence" it is largely because the director has brilliantly complicated the divide between sex and violence, presenting these two seemingly separate realms as locked in hungry embrace.
The scene that brings the sex-violence nexus to the boiling point takes place about an hour into this tightly wound 98-minute film, shortly after the revelation that Tom Stall, the central character played by Viggo Mortensen, used to be Joey Cusack, a big-city gangster who once ripped another man's eye out with barbed wire. Joey's violent past has come back to haunt him and his - or rather Tom's - family and the scene opens shortly after Tom has returned from the hospital where he had been recovering from a bullet wound inflicted by a former associate. The sheriff, meanwhile, has swung by the Stall home to investigate the shootout that left his neighbor wounded and three men dead. "It just doesn't fit," the sheriff tells Tom.
"What doesn't fit?" asks Tom.
"None of it," says the baffled lawman.
Surrounded by the usual homey clutter - a laundry basket, framed family photographs - the men square off in the fading afternoon light, Tom seated on the sofa, the sheriff looming above. A car approaches the house crunching gravel. Tom's wife, Edie, played by Maria Bello, opens the front door and tersely greets the sheriff. The first thing you notice about this small-town lawyer is that she's wearing a black bra under her white shirt, a sartorial choice that seems more appropriate to the hard-hitting flirts on "Sex and the City." The second thing you notice is that this is the first time we've seen Edie wearing a skirt, the form-fitting contours of which are revealed a minute later when, after the sheriff leaves, husband and wife are having rough sex on the hall staircase.
Shockingly intense, this raw, animalistic encounter upends the carefully established dynamic between the couple. Until now, Edie has literally and figuratively worn the family pants alongside her husband. Although she probably earns more, she registers as a fully equal partner, a caring wife and mother who can, when need be, also stand up to trouble. It's instructive that the only other sex scene in the film, which occurs some 15 minutes in, finds Edie playing bedroom dress-up in a cheerleader's outfit, an overtly feminine costume that causes Tom to teasingly ask, "What have you done with my wife?" The couple's lovemaking in that scene is tender and mutually satisfying, and ends with them spooning each other in bed while cooing about their love.
But when the sheriff leaves Tom and Edie in their darkening living room, the safe world they have created feels lost. Edie is sobbing into Tom's shoulder, but almost as soon as the door shuts, she pushes away from him and rushes to the hall stairs, Howard Shore's soundtrack quietly revving up again. Tom catches hold of Edie at the foot of the stairs and she slaps him hard across the face. Tom - or Joey - grabs her around the neck, pinning her to the wall. She shoves him, calling him "Joey," and turns away. He grabs her, they tussle. Suddenly, she's barefoot. Pressing his body down on hers, Tom, Joey, maybe both, again puts a hand to her neck then draws it away, only to have Edie pull his head to hers for a ferocious kiss.
As his camera moves in closer and amid the panting and ouch-worthy thumping against the wooden stairs, Mr. Cronenberg maintains a dead-eye, presentational perspective here, never assuming either character's point of view. He keeps this stance even at the pivotal moment when he transforms us from bystanders into voyeurs, a shift that happens the instant when, during the most violent part of the staircase rough-and-tumble, Edie's bare legs part to reveal a pair of spectacular thighs and black panties. (Now we know why she's wearing a skirt.) Shot from behind the couple, this vaguely gynecological angle doesn't align with anyone in the film; it is, rather, the presumptive point of view of the director and, by extension, his willing accomplices - us.
Until the staircase sex, Mr. Cronenberg has encouraged us to look at Tom the way Edie sees him, to believe the image she has unquestioningly accepted of the good father, the loving husband, the Everyman and the hero. "You are the best man I have ever known," she whispers to Tom after their first lovemaking. Through her ignorance and slow awakening, Edie has served as our surrogate, but in this scene she becomes something else, something other. In a story of blood and vengeance, Mr. Cronenberg asks us to look at those who pick up guns in our name, protectors who whisper they love us with hands around our throats. And then, with this scene, he goes one better and asks us to look at those who open their hearts and bare themselves to such a killing love.
Edie's transformation from helpmate into a gangster's moll with a taste for a little rough trade is one of the more shocking turns in a film filled with hairpin turns of mood and tone. Throughout the staircase clash, Mr. Mortensen visibly changes from Tom to Joey and back again, his face and caresses alternately gentle and brutal. When Edie unleashes her fury with that slap she's reacting as much to Tom, the husband who has betrayed her, as to Joey, the stranger who has brought havoc into her life. Yet Tom's secret self is no noir-like contrivance; it's a manifestation of all that lies beneath, the ooze and shadows, the desire and dread, one that, in turn, bares Edie's secret self too. Here, in a simple American home, the repressed returns with a vengeance.