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A History of Violence


Friday September 30, 2005
The Guardian
Peter Bradshaw


There's just one thing to tip you off that this is a film by David Cronenberg. The gunshot wounds. In an otherwise straight-looking, straight-talking movie, they stand out like lush and evil-smelling exotic flowers. Now obviously, getting shot in the face can't look pretty. But surely to God it doesn't look like this. The ghastly contusions and lesions where the bullet goes in gibber like some extra rubbery mandible, or like the face of the Alien as it emerges from John Hurt's stomach. These cannot appear in any medical textbook known to man. It is as if the wounded person has been suddenly whisked at warp-speed to Planet Cronenberg to have the injury seeded with a kinky bacterium and then transported back to Earth for the resulting metastasis to be filmed.

Otherwise it's all quite normal. Sort of. Cronenberg has here directed an adaptation of a graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke - part of a publishing series which includes The Road to Perdition, recently shot by Sam Mendes - although this has a cleaner, more uncluttered design, is more relaxed and less obviously concerned to transmit the super-cool novelty of its comic-book origins. It is a rather gripping and stylish film, a kind of black serio-comedy. A little middle-of-the-road for Cronenberg, maybe, but for him this has turned out to be the fast lane.

A History of Violence is about the intrusion of violent and bizarre outsiders in a peaceful all-American small town whose inhabitants' lives are drawn with surprising wit and sympathy. It looks like Frank Capra, and Main Street resembles the one in Phoenix, Arizona, where the real estate office is to be found in Psycho. Viggo Mortensen plays Tom: a rugged, regular guy whose handsome features are always on the point of being shyly drawn upwards into a "Shucks". He runs a modest little diner, working behind the counter in an apron, serving coffee and slices of generic pie, exchanging badinage with his employees: a place where people say "See you in church!" without getting a laugh. Tom has a bright, nervy son, Jack (Ashton Holmes) who is being pushed around by a jock bully in school, a sweet pre-teen daughter and a wife, Edie (Maria Bello) who, after 15 years of marriage, still loves and desires him - enough to dress up as a fantasy cheerleader for some raunchy intra-marital soixante-neuf. One of the interesting achievements of this film is to argue for the intensity, even violence, possible in married love.

Everyone's lives change when some itinerant bad guys roll into town and make the serious mistake of trying to stick up the local diner - and indeed mess with the womenfolk. Quiet Tom re-enacts the final verse of The Coward of the County, and to his embarrassment finds himself feted by the national media as an American smalltown hero: the man who disarmed two criminals and showed them some rough justice. Tom finds that his celebrity has attracted the attention of some very scary individuals. A big-city wiseguy played by Ed Harris - sporting a spectacularly yucky Cronenberg-wound on his face - shows up, and Tom's moment of heroism unlocks some secrets in his past and draws him and his family into a terrifying world of violence.

Cronenberg is not known for subtlety exactly, and this is hardly a subtle film, but there is something intriguing and understated in the way he contrives a syncopation of narrative and character. It looks on paper like a regular father-son drama, or a standard-issue gangster film, but there's a Twilight Zoney offness and weirdness. The explicit alienness of films like Crash or Dead Ringers or eXistenZ has been coiled and hidden in the movie's fabric. He gets an unreality effect, a note of superhero or secret-identity fantasy, that works particularly well when Tom's teenage boy suddenly finds in himself the capacity for aggression necessary to stand up to his tormentors at school. On the strength of this, Cronenberg might well find himself offered the next Spider-Man movie.

The director saves his best flourish for his final act: a terrifically funny performance from William Hurt as the glowering gangster who finally confronts Tom. He is living a life of preposterous self-importance in the pseudo-baronial stately home that he considers commensurate with a vicious killer of his standing. Hurt's habitual puzzled, quizzical, faintly nettled look - a regular feature of his performances since the days of Broadcast News - has at last come into its own as a kind of murderous grumpiness. His presence provides the movie with an uproarious finale - which, however, might not be enough to satisfy some people, inside and outside the director's fanbase, who will complain Cronenberg has allowed himself to be washed into the commercial mainstream. This isn't true. He has dammed and diverted the mainstream and made it work for him.

    A History of Violence, G, 30.9.2005, http://film.guardian.co.uk/News_Story/Critic_Review/Guardian_review/0,,1580998,00.html






King Kong

Cert 12A


Friday December 9, 2005
The Guardian
Peter Bradshaw


The mad and magnificent brilliance of one of cinema's most extraordinary images - the giant ape's last stand atop the Empire State Building, proclaiming doomed, counter-evolutionary defiance - is thrillingly revived in Peter Jackson's passionate remake of the 1933 classic by Cooper and Schoedsack.

His Kong is noble savage, anarchic beast, wounded kid and unloosed id. Alpha-male heroes don't get alphier than this, and like its mighty, hairy lead Jackson's film is big. Very big. At over three hours, it's almost twice as long as the original, telling the long and involved story of how Carl Denham (Jack Black) an adventure-travelogue film-maker modelled on Merian Cooper himself, journeys to the far-off Skull Island with author Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody) and winsome leading lady Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts). There he finds a nest of dinosaurs and savages like something from Conan Doyle or Kipling, chances upon the enormous ape and, in a moment of mad hubris, decides to bring it back to the big city for profit. Kong himself is CGI-modelled by Andy Serkis.

It has to be admitted that the humans' performances are a little broad and there are some longueurs and moments when the narrative tendons and muscles go a little slack, especially at the very beginning. But you need these stretches of relative inaction to clear a space around that gobsmacking final scene, to give it due weight and focus, and indeed to clear a space around the 25ft gorilla himself. He is a heartbreaking and even tragic figure, his only companion a diminutive blonde who can never return his love, and no Ma to whom he could shout that he is top of the world.
This new Kong Kong is a folie de grandeur with real grandeur; in its power, its spectacle, and its spine-tinglingly beautiful vision of 1930s New York, it is a thing of wonder. It certainly equals, and even exceeds, anything Jackson did in Lord of the Rings. I admit that when I heard that Jackson proposed to revive the original in its Depression period setting, I thought it a failure of nerve. The first Kong was set in 1933, but made in 1933. It was fiercely contemporary. Was the idea of a modern destructive force endangering Manhattan's buildings in 2005 too uncomfortable for obvious reasons - especially considering that the very substandard 1976 remake had the ape shinning up the Twin Towers? Maybe. And yet Jackson brings such brio, such crystalline perfection to every detail of his 1930s city, that the proper reaction is not to cavil but to swoon.

The other interpretative option which Jackson has coolly chosen not to take up is making his heroine Ann Darrow an actual, explicit relative of Clarence Darrow, the famous lawyer who argued the Darwinian case in the Monkey Trial eight years earlier in 1925 - within America's living memory. The coincidence is often noted, and the story of King Kong has a vividly satirical, yet ambiguous relationship to this still current debate.

In seeking to wrench Kong from his habitat, Denham might be exhibiting the scientist's transgression. But King Kong is close enough to homo sapiens to fall morganatically in love with a low-born human, yet his tragedy is: Ann can never be his queen. When Denham thinks he can capture and humiliate his uber-ape, and assert the primacy of humanity over this mighty ancestor, he may also exhibiting the creationist's vanity.

Everything the 1933 movie has, Jackson has - to the power of a hundred. The appearance of dinosaurs as well as a giant ape may look excessive, yet the point is that Kong, the old softy, has to rescue Ann from these predators, and Jackson's brings out his simian gallantry far more clearly in this version. He also gleefully restores the famously cut "spider-pit" sequence and his skin-crawlingly horrible creations will make arachnophobes of us all.

There's no cage strong enough for the sheer brute strength of Jackson's movie, a muscularity matched by its ingenuous love for the great beast himself. Like his tiny blonde worshipper, you will be in the palm of his hand.

Released on Thursday 15 Dec

    King Kong, G, 9.12.2005, http://film.guardian.co.uk/News_Story/Critic_Review/Guardian_review/0,,1662536,00.html