Tag Archives: A History of Violence

David Cronenberg’s A History Of Violence

Every director at some point is encouraged to challenge the aesthetic they are known for, traverse terrains beyond the thematic and stylistic comfort zone they are accustomed to and bless new lands of genre and tone with their talent. Some don’t and stick with what they know, which is fine, while others break free as David Cronenberg did with his fearsome psychological horror story A History Of Violence. Cronenberg is a horror old-hand who loves his prosthetic body parts and buckets o’ blood, albeit always accompanied by strong themes and pointed subtext. Here he trades in the schlock (but not the gore, there’s still plenty of that) for a different sort of horror, the arresting mental climate of violent criminals and the roiling psychological unrest that goes hand in hand with such vicious behaviour, no matter how hard one might try to asphyxiate dark impulses with methodical conditioning. Viggo Mortensen is Tom Stall, small town Everyman, husband, father, greasy spoon diner magnate and pillar of a bucolic slice of Americana. Or is he? The film opens as two ruthless psychopaths (Stephen McHattie and Greg Bryk are so good they deserve their own spinoff film) barge into the idyllic sanctuary of his restaurant and terrorize patrons and staff alike. Tom reacts with uncharacteristically lithe force, quickly and frighteningly dispatching both to the lands beyond with a few quick moves, several gunshots and a pot of hot coffee (one brutal fucking way to die). He’s lauded as local hero and chalks up his heroic reaction to pure instincts… and that’s when the film gets really interesting. Back in the mid 2000’s before social media it would take making international news to dredge up any sort of long buried, sordid past one might have, but sure enough the press comes a’hounding and soon trouble comes a’knocking in an ominous black Chrysler containing one very pissed off Ed Harris as ‘organized crime from the east coast’ who is sure Tom is actually a fellow named Joey, who he once shared a scuffle with over some barbed wire. So who’s lying and who’s not? I mean it’s obvious Tom has a past, the fascination lies in both uncovering it and watching him try to reconcile it with the man he has become since then. The film gets positively Shakespearean when yet another Philadelphia wise-guy played by William Hurt enters the picture and pretty much steals the fucking film from everyone, the skill that dude has is amazing and what he does onscreen in about five minutes not only demonstrates his wry, diabolical control over a scene but completely justifies the Oscar gold he went home with, fucking bravo. The film starts where many other crime/noirs would end: a man with a violent past has found a way out, a proverbial light at the end of the viscera tunnel, and lives not necessarily happily ever after… but free from the din of his former incarnation anyways. Until two punks stir the long dormant reflexes, he ends up on the news and it all comes full circle. I think this film is so brilliant because of what is left unsaid, unexplained and unexplored; it’s barely over ninety minutes long but contains enough thematic implications to fill up or at least catalyze a half dozen films. But it never feels a moment longer or shorter than it needs to be. Mortensen’s performance is about dead on flawless, full of so many veiled notes that are conjured into view with multiple watches, which the film begs of any viewer. Equally spellbinding is Maria Bello as Tom’s firebrand of a wide who finds herself at odds with her own loyal nature when the shards of truth start to eviscerate their family. She’s an actress that Hollywood inexplicably doesn’t entrust with dramatically heavy roles too often but it’s their loss because when she lands a golden egg of a character like this she practically moves worlds. Harris has a ball as the bulldog on low simmer baddie who wishes he was as big of a bad as Hurt, who almost brings down the house and start his own fucking franchise before… well, I won’t spoil it that much. I would have loved to have ‘put it simply’ in my review and not drawled on in adoration like this but it’s just that kind of film. In a way it does the same as I have: it’s barely over an hour and a half and any film of that length could just ‘put it simply’, but in that brisk runtime there’s galaxies of psychological depth and treatises on human nature to unpack. Gotta throw a late hour bone to Howard Shore’s impeccable original score as well, an austerely baroque yet somehow evocatively Midwest composition that calls to mind everything from B&W classics to his work on Lord Of The Rings, which somehow suits the mood. A stone cold classic.

-Nate Hill

Top Ten William Hurt Performances

William Hurt has been a fierce cinematic presence for decades, and now he’s slowly embarked on making his mark in television.  He was the epitome of a sex symbol in the 1980’s, a uniquely handsome movie star who brought an abstract and fresh approach to each role he consumed.  Sex symbol status aside, Hurt was nominated three years in a row for Best Actor, winning his first nomination for KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN.  He has been able to navigate the waters of blockbuster films like CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR, independent dramas like THE KING, and television.  His first prominent turn on the long form medium was in FX’s DAMAGES where he played a former lover and father to Glenn Close’s son.  He then starred as Captain Ahab in MOBY DICK and most recently he gave an eccentric turn as Donald Cooperman who is the big bad in Amazon Studio’s GOLIATH that recently yielded Billy Bob Thornton Best Actor at this past year’s Golden Globes.  Hurt has been around since the late 1970’s and has always delivered fine performances even when the film itself paled in comparison to his performance.

THE ACCIDENTAL TOURIST 1988 Dir. Lawrence Kasdan

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This film marks the third collaboration between Hurt and writer/director Lawrence Kasdan as well as the two being reunited with Kathleen Turner.  Here, Hurt gives a very sensible turn as a man in constant mourning over the death of his son; the grief is crippling.  He navigates the waters of the film with a reserved sense of humor, yet the audience becomes absorbed by the sadness in his eyes.  As the film progresses, and his life is renewed with the love and affection from Geena Davis, his reserved and heavily introverted Macon Leary begins to breath life and flourishes.

ALTERED STATES 1980 Dir. Ken Russell

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Hurt made a huge splash with his first film role.  This is a film that pushes every boundary possible while exploring the themes of obsession and the human psyche.  He is absolutely perfect as the young and sexy scientist looking to push our reality into new realms.  Being his first film, this allowed Hurt to tackle thematic subject matter that even to this day would be rendered taboo.

THE BIG BRASS RING – 1999 Dir. George Hickenlooper 

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This film is a cinematic anomaly.  Based upon an unproduced screenplay by Orson Welles, the film follows Hurt as a gubernatorial candidate who has a very dark and very secretive past that’s exposure hinges upon his former mentor.  Hurt has always played these types of characters well.  Men who try their best to be noble, but are completely shrouded by their past transgressions.  This is a film that is difficult to track down, but well worth it.

THE BIG CHILL 1983 Dir. Lawrence Kasdan

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There are few actor/director relationships that were so fertile and rewarding as William Hurt and Lawrence Kasdan.  In this film, Hurt plays Nick, the drug addicted intellectual who was psychologically changed by his tour in Vietnam.  While each character in the film was written and performed with such care, Nick was the one role that all the male actors lobbied Kasdan for, but he wrote the part specifically for Hurt.

BODY HEAT – 1981 Dir. Lawrence Kasdan

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Kasdan’s first feature was an unofficial remake of DOUBLE INDEMNITY, and it was also the genre setter for the steamy and sweaty erotic thrillers of the 1980’s.  There are not many films sexier and more dangerous than BODY HEAT.  With John Barry’s silky score, to the constant sweaty sex between Hurt and Kathleen Turner – this film will always be unmatched.  The arc of Hurt’s character is fantastic.  He plays the role perfectly.  He’s the sleazy lawyer turned obsessive lover turned the ultimate dupe.

BROADCAST NEWS – 1987 Dir. James L. Brooks

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Nominated for Best Actor by the Academy, Hurt portrayed the bubble headed blonde anchorman who had a complete and utter lack of understanding of what he was reading into the television, but that didn’t matter because he looked great doing it.  He plays this character with as much gusto as he does with moral ambiguity.  He’s not a bad guy by any means, but he’s not nearly as noble as he is propped up to be.

GOLIATH – 2016 Amazon Studios

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This is a television show that didn’t make any wakes when it was dropped in October of 2016.  Hurt plays the big bad of the show, he’s the archetypal noir villain who sits in an office that is shaded by his own shadows and web of secrets.  The right side of his body is cover in horrid burn scars, from the top of his head to his hand; that only adds to his mysterious intrigue.  He speaks in riddles and poetic fables in a cadence that only he is capable of.  Billy Bob Thornton won the Golden Globe for his performance in the film, but it’s an injustice that Hurt’s performance seems to have been left by the wayside.

A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE – 2005 Dir. David Cronenberg 

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In this film, Hurt gives one of the best performances of all time.  His total screentime is less than fifteen minutes, and he strategically brought in to close the third act of the film.  He is absolutely menacing in this film, from Cronenberg’s use of eye light on him to his rustbelt accent – Hurt owns the entire picture that was already great before he shows up.  This film also highlighted Hurt’s cinematic return.  He won Best Supporting Actor from the New York and Los Angelos film critics association, and he was nominated by the Academy for his role, only to lose out to George Clooney.

I LOVE YOU TO DEATH – 1990 Dir. Lawrence Kasdan

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This marks the last collaboration between Hurt and Kasdan.  In this film, Hurt takes on a completely zany and hysterical role as a drunkard pool player who gets roped into killing a man for a couple hundred dollars.  His role is very small, but his long hair, John Lennon esque sunglasses, and obsession over Reggie Jackson marks this an incredibly unforgetable performance.

KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN – 1985 Dir. Hector Babenco

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Fresh off his two collaborations with Lawrence Kasdan, Hurt risked his movie stardom gigantically by taking on a role in a small film where he played an imprisoned, flamboyantly gay sex offender in a South American prison.  He strips himself of every single masculine quality and becomes this very feminine and fragile character who copes with his horrible life by retelling the love story from a Nazi propaganda film to his freedom fight cellmate, Raul Juila.  Hurt won Best Actor from the Academy for his fearless performance, further lamenting this as one of the best performances in cinema history.

 

 

 

PTS Presents Writer’s Workshop with JOSH OLSON

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olsonPodcasting Them Softly is extremely excited to present a discussion with special guest Josh Olson. Josh is the Oscar, BAFTA, and WGA nominated writer of the David Cronenberg crime thriller A History of Violence, which we’re both huge fans of. Josh has also written an episode of Masters of Science Fiction with the legendary Harlan Ellison, was the last writer on Halo, working with Peter Jackson and Neil Blomkamp, and has worked on scripts with Slash, Willie Nelson and Mick Jagger, as well as writing one of the segments of the animated anthology series Batman: Gotham Nights. He’s currently developing a Western TV show with the great filmmaker Walter Hill. Josh is also a massive film buff, having provided numerous commentaries for the excellent web site Trailers From Hell, and on this episode, we chat about his career as a screenwriter, and also discuss our most favorite underrated movies stretching various genres. We hope you enjoy!