Sunday, January 29, 2006


Violence and Thumbsucking

By Edward Copeland
I had the chance this weekend to catch up with A History of Violence and Thumbsucker and I actually liked them both. While the two films aren't really similar in the least, both contains in varying degrees the idea of nature vs. nurture.

In Thumbsucker, a fairly straight-forward coming of age tale, viewers are invited to watch the ups and downs of high school student Justin Cobb (wonderfully played by Lou Pucci), who is a poor student with a serious thumbsucking habit, though that state of his being and scholarliness rises and falls throughout the course of Mike Mills' movie based on the Walter Kirn novel.

The pacing is swift, the tone bittersweet and while it doesn't deign to answer the question of whether Justin's shortcomings were handed down by his parents (ably played by Tilda Swinton and Vincent D'Onofrio), the movie turns out to be quite touching.

Touching is not the word one would use to describe A History of Violence, David Cronenberg's most "normal" film yet — but it's a great one. A suspenseful tale of a man (Viggo Mortensen) whose past comes back to revisit him when he stops a robbery in his small town eatery.

In this film, the nature vs. nurture aspect is really a minor point with the subplot of Mortensen's teenage son (Ashton Holmes) who is plagued by bullies at school, but events in the movie do raise the idea that perhaps the next generation can't escape their parents' nature.

The thing that these two films have most in common is that they are so concise. After having endured the bloat of King Kong, what a thrill it was to be able to watch two really good films in the same amount of time it took to sit through Kong.

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Hats off to the supporting (overlooked) cast of THUMBSUCKER. Especially to D'nofrio, who's perfromance was one of my favorite supporting performances of 2005. Swinton & Vaughn construct interesting diminsions to roles that could've been wasted by any number of actors & actresses. And who knew that Keanu Reeves & Benjaman Bratt could be funny! Never thought too highly of them before this movie. With the added spice of a Polyphonic Spree musical feast, THUMBSUCKER is a treat that no one should miss.

A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE was outstanding, as well. It made my Top 10 for 2005.
Both films left me thinking less about the properties of nature vs. nature than about other films that I'd seen before. While they're both good - and A History of Violence is more than that - neither can avoid prompting a sense of deja vu.

While Thumbsucker has its share of finely nuanced performances, it seemed to me a fairly typical coming-of-age movie of the Sundance variety - which is to say, a misunderstood-youth-feeling-alienated-from-his-environment treatise gussied up with strenuously endearing bits of indie movie quirkiness. And I think the indie movement needs to come up with a fresher, less condescending take on middle class life; I'm not trying to refute the banality or the incipient hysteria of suburban existence, I just think that the business of mining it for black-comic absurdity has become a little stale. Thumbsucker didn't have anything to new to say on the subject beyond some observations on how alienated young people numb their pain with a barage of sense-dulling or mood-enhancing prescrition drugs....well, actually, we saw that in Garden State too.

There is one thing that does set the film apart, and that's the captivating performance of Lou Pucci; he didn't register very strongly for me in either Chumscrubber or Empire Falls, but his work here signals the arrival of a major new talent.

If Thumbsucker looks at the blandness of middle-class existence, A History of Violence unearths the dark uncurrents of volatility that lurk just beneath its complacent surface. David Cronenberg's film is a taut, lean excercise in mounting tension, featuring an excellent cast expertly anchored by Viggo Mortensen. It's worthy of the praise that it's been given, and yet, there was never a moment in the film where I didn't know exactly what was coming. I never saw the trailer for this film, but I can imagine the voice over: "He thought he'd left the past behind....until his past caught up with him". Sound familiar?

I guess there are some things in this paragraph that could be called "spoilers", but I don't think they spoil much of anything if you've seen a lot of movies. My sense of deja vu kicked in right off the bat with the two drifters loitering outside a seemingly deserted motel - the more effort Cronenberg made to make the exchange between the two seem mundance, the more sure I was of where it was leading (I didn't call out "behind the counter!", but I knew that was the place to look and what would be found there). Even the celebrated staircase scene (a critics favorite) where rage turns to violence, taking a swift turn into passion and finally into despair - that seemed incredibly familiar, although I'm still wracking my brain to place it. But again, I saw it coming as soon as the fight started to turn ugly - I knew there was some ugly, violent grasping sex just around the corner, ending in silence and disillusionment.

There's so much to like about A History of Violence, which is well-written, well-made and very well-acted, that it probably seems very nit-picky to criticize it for lack of originality. But the films that generally make the greatest impact on me are the ones that at least provide the illusion of experiencing something for the first time.
I hate to take up the cause of the apparent minority, but it appears I must. Though my review has not yet been written, it will not be the most favorable for History of Violence.

The highlights include, though are basically limited to, the first half of the movie and my newfound crush on Maria Bello. Everything in the movie was going well up until the point where Viggo gets shot in the shoulder. He goes from being a strong patriarch and business owner to a whimpering Jersey Shore street rat. It didn't fit.

I was impressed by Thumbsucker, though. I won't say that it was better than History of Violence; I am not making a comparison between the two. That review has been written. Find it here, if you are curious.
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