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  Body Language
By Nicolas Rapold

A History of Violence
Dir. David Cronenberg, U.S., New Line

The business of Cronenberg, to borrow the phrasing of another famous auteur, is that of the word made flesh. Metaphors become physical, and the physical a living metaphor, in such a way that posits embodiment as the truest description of our state of being; mind is body, body mind. Even his failures are saved by this heightened awareness of the body—you can’t argue with a feeling. His vehicles for this project loosely fall into two tendencies: work within genres (horror and thriller especially) to evolve universal ideas about materialism, identity, and society; and, especially recently, works that develop individual psychology, partaking of themes and motifs from genres but growing their own rules to replace the generic framework (a process he dramatizes in eXistenZ). This is one way of explaining a range from horror films (Shivers, The Brood) to a narrative like Spider or a sui generis masterpiece like Crash. In truth, it is all too much fun to trace Cronenberg’s obsessions; as one critic has observed, he is an auteurist’s dream.

A History of Violence seems to pose the definitive auteurist’s delight—a studio project—but for many critics Cronenberg’s history of violence, sexuality, and the body seemed to fall by the wayside. A History of Violence can be classified as a new fusion of the genre work (from which he had seemed to be drifting away) with the more developed performances of dramas like Spider, all gleaming with the self-conscious artifice of eXistenZ. The movie even seems to write its own immediate analysis, enabling critics to approach it as an American Sociology text, which is at least a line of thought in Cronenberg’s pseudosciences, from the very early Crimes of the Future (virtually a conceptual anagram of his latest).

I’m less concerned with arguing for Cronenberg’s signature than with describing my own experience, and what attracted me most was the same old somatizing, previously ectoplasmic, telepathic, cyberspatial, psychosexual, and so on. Here that would be violence as viral and atavistic, which sociology textbooks suggest, and Viggo Mortensen’s face and body, which don’t at all. His transformation from Tom Stall into Crazy Fucking Joey is one of the year’s great performances, and the simple elements of Tom only underline Joey’s hidden presence throughout: lose the bangs, let’s see that jaw, and good lord aren’t your eyes hollow? The bunched-up facial features that can make Stall look childlike (the man has perfected a hand-caught-in-the-cookie-jar look for his wife) seem to spread out when he is Joey and fortify his face like battlements. Not to mention his street body language—that lupine roll—or the cryptic tribal gesture when approaching gangster Fogarty in front of his house (his son passes Dad, and literally doesn’t recognize him).

This is a matter of body memory, as Stall’s automatic reaction to the diner psychos shows, perhaps most precisely in the reflex, after shooting, to sweep the area at gunpoint. Then and later we see him self-consciously looking at his hands, or simply within. Cronenberg conveys that false alienation from one’s body that makes one realize your body is what you were in the first place. This look of surprise is easy to mistake as a moralizing shock, as commentators will, but truly corporeal identity replaces moral. His son’s ethical nonviolent strategy of verbal disobedience and disarmament (classic comic-book underdog and necessity for “closet mobster dad”’s son against a violent, homophobic bully) transmutes into instant genetic inheritance and bodily awakening of streetfighting technique. As he later says, it wasn’t a question of right; he “wasn’t thinking.” The gray area produced by such unearthed instinct recalls one of the great overlooked moments in the Cronenberg oeuvre that occurs in Shivers: as a carnality contagion takes over a building, a guy finds a rabid man and woman struggling on the ground; he seems worried it might be a sexual assault, and pauses; but after a few moments, realizing that neither person exists more than as a body in motion—with free will and morality hard to pinpoint—he moves on.

That is meant not to sidestep the obvious critical urge to use the film to condemn a certain tendency of the American way but to underline how Cronenberg reveals his genre tropes to be as fertile as ever. And in A History of Violence, it’s above all the horror-sci-fi-thriller trope of the Perfect Killer: a being “so good at killing” (as made man Fogarty puts it) that it elicits wonder, even satisfaction, more than fear. The sci-fi examples are Predator and even more so T2, the horror ones legion though less impressive than Collateral’s recent assassin in Tom Cruise’s ambiguously-post-something killer in a suit. (Cronenberg avoids the well-known efficiency-killing of the movie-deadened Mafia institution by changing the comic book’s capos to Philadelphia-Boston, for ethnicity still accessible and reworkable for the tribal touch.)

The fantasy of the perfect killer involves the magic of escaping any situation, being able to destroy any other human. It is a power that Cronenberg introduces through one of his oldest devices, the same way as telepathy in Scanners or psychotherapeutic somatizing in The Brood or cyberspace games in eXistenZ: through a public demonstration, this time in the diner instead of an auditorium, giving us two men who seem Stall’s opposites but are his foils (and rewriting the opening of The Killers). As in all those movies, the demonstration is an overture to how that newly introduced power will explode narrative, characters, bodies. Here it is that of the Perfect Killer: Stall’s is the power of another category than human, superhuman like a monster, unerring in its instinct like an animal (witness how Stall/Joey grabs his wife straight by the neck on the stairs; a bear can’t bluff, he does what he is), or simply a god in dispensing justice.

This is Crazy Joey—and Cronenberg applies the perfect killer to his own bodily concerns. The key stage in the visceral transformation is Stall/Joey’s run on an injured foot, shots which Cronenberg draws out longer and from more angles than normal. Stall/Joey is supposed to be in excruciating pain from running on his punctured foot, but he is clearly also coming alive: Mortensen skillfully suggests, in his grimacing torment, echoes of the tough-guy slow-motion postures—the pain awakens him. Cronenberg takes the archetypal fate of Oedipus—an outsider who comes to town to adopt a new identity, whose wife didn’t really know the man with whom she was sleeping, and whose name (“swollen-footed”) comes from his benighted birth fate, pierced by his foot to the mountainside for abandonment—and emphasizes the embodiment of destiny. The cushioned small-town life is forgotten in the pain of fighting years past, bodily experience one with bodily identity, the story of an individual body or the body politic.

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