A History of Violence (Directed by David Cronenberg, 2005): I was rather non-plussed when I saw this for the first time, four years ago. Of course, it was an awkward visit to the theater, considering I saw it with my mother and father (Boy, those sex scenes made the trip extra-awkward), and some employee was vacuuming the back hallway behind the theater for the last half-hour, or so. But, upon rewatch, I’m still not a big fan. My biggest problem with it - and you can blame me for committing the unpardonable sin of the movie reviewer - is that it didn’t really go where I wanted it to go. I loved the story of the two hoods coming to this small town and a mild-mannered diner owner, Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) who leaps into action when needed and kills the two hoods. I loved the idea of said diner owner getting hounded by a mysterious mobster (Ed Harris) who thinks Tom is someone else, a hood named Joey from Philadlephia. But, I am not really onboard with the whole
>>[SPOILER]Tom IS actually a who the mobster says he is, a hood from Philadelphia who buried his past and assumed a new identity[/END SPOILER].<<
Something about the last third just doesn’t strike me as believable. I’ve read reviews which detail how it plays around with the idea of self-identification and what makes us who we are, but I don’t think the film does a really good job of explaining or exploring this territory. If the film is about this idea of the self and what makes it, then it should get to this point much earlier in the story. By the time we get the big reveal about Tom, it’s two-thirds into the film and we’ve become invested, as an audience, in the story of Tom, that the second part of the plot never really takes hold.
>>SPOILER]Since all we really ever learn/know about Joey is that he was a nasty person and super-hood from Philadelphia, we never really feel any apprehension when he confronts his brother. I mean, if Tom Stall can battle mobsters with few problems, it stands to reason that Joey, who is Tom minus all sense of good and responsibility, would have even less problems with said mobsters. It removes all the tension from what should be a very tense situation.[/END SPOILER]<<
I also think a lot of the dialogue is really overwritten, particularly Tom’s son who never sounds like a high-school kid, rather a theater student in his mid-twenties. So, while I can admire the movie’s strongpoints: great performances by Mortensen, Harris, and Maria Bello; intense action sequences that show real results of violence without glorifying them (Though they are still kind of cool); and a weirdo, spirited casting choice of William Hurt as a mobster, that almost works, I can’t quite recommend it.
Dead Ringers (Directed by David Cronenberg, 1988): Dead Ringers, on the other hand, does a much better job of exploring the realm of identity and the self. Jeremy Irons plays the role(s) of twin gynecologists, Beverly and Elliot Mantle. And what a performance it is! You actually find yourself watching it, and being able to tell who Beverly and Elliot are separately, because Irons does such an incredible job of playing each twin as a completely separate person: Bev, the introverted super-doctor who has a wonderful compassionate bedside manner but has difficulty communicating outside of his clinic, and Elliot, the smooth-talking brother with a knack for wooing the ladies, but can’t really communicate on any deeper level than seduction. After Elliot seduces an actress, Claire (Genevieve Bujold), he gets Beverly to take her out the second time, because he recognizes that Elliot will never meet women without his help. But, where Elliot finds Claire to be an interesting diversion, like all women he meets, Beverly makes a much deeper connection with her. He begins to have difficulty operating without her, and when she finds out the twins’ scheme, cuts off all contact with them. Beverly is devastated, and begins to take drugs to cope with her absence, and beings to spiral out of control. Her return doesn’t help, as she indulges his drug habit with her own, but the two manage to peacefully co-exist, though Elliot feels shunted aside. When she goes away on a shoot, and Bev suspects her fidelity, it’s more than he can take, and he begins to have difficulty operating not just in the outside world, but even in his sanctuary, the clinic. Elliot recognizes his brother’s suffering, and decides he must suffer with him, that it’s the only way he can pull him out of the nosedive.
It’s a fascinating film, contrasting the grotesque (Beverly’s nightmare, surgical scenes, and Beverly’s growing infatuation with “mutated women”, as well as a gory finale), with scenes of surprising beauty, like Elliot looking after his brother, or the opening sequence that’s a flashback to their childhood attempts at “seduction”.
But, this is Irons' picture as much as anyone. And Irons is phenomenal, playing both characters as completely different people, at times you forget it’s the same actor in both roles. As a Canadian, it’s quite refreshing to see that we got it right for a change, when Irons was chosen as Best Actor at the Genie Awards (Canada’s Oscars) while the Academy Awards failed to even nominate him.