In a television interview sometime between Dead Ringers and Naked Lunch, film-maker David Cronenberg asked his interviewer (and audience) why beauty was inevitably a "surface" characteristic. You see the skin on a person's face, and if it meets certain criteria, you judge it to be beautiful. But what happens when the skin is removed? Is what you see, in fact, ugly?
Since then we've had Body Worlds, and an increasing avalanche of movies that start by removing the skin from beautiful people -- while they're still breathing -- and Cronenberg's "deep thoughts" don't have quite the same cache they did 15 years ago. Still, he does what he does, and critics seem to appreciate him for it.
My own critical thumb has a 50/50 average when it comes to Cronenberg -- it's a love/hate relationship I have with DC, which must make me his ideal viewer. So why is it that A History of Violence left me ... unmoved? It was too corny to completely pull me in, but whenever I thought about calling it a night something incredibly entertaining would happen, keeping me glued to the screen.
It's comic book -- sorry: graphic novel -- material, and with the sole exception of his SFX, Cronenberg sticks to a two-dimensional approach. Where Sam Raimi's Peter Parker has an emotionally compelling relationship with his Aunt May and the girl next door, Cronenberg's Tom Stall relates to his cheerleader wife and their two peppy kids on a singular aw-gee-whiz note that never varies. Until things get violent. That's when we get the movie's second note, which is a shade more entertaining.
I think Cronenberg gets the surface wrong in this movie. Cronenberg's portrait of Stall's small-town life is so corn-pone idyllic, he makes Earl Hamner look like Peter Bogdanovich. Of course the whole point of the exercise is THINGS ARE NOT AS THEY SEEM, but when things don't even look like they're trying to seem like something real, the argument lacks vitality. The good guys don't look like anyone I recognize, and neither do the bad guys -- the artifice never achieves depth, until a bad guy gets his face blown off ("Why, that flap of skin looks like something I saw on CSI!"). So my thumb teeters downward. I only wish it had done so with greater passion.