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The killer inside 

A History of Violence is well-intended but pretentious, while Pretty Persuasion is neither attractive nor compelling

A History of Violence opens with a dazzling scene as we meet two menacing thugs checking out of a cheap motel. They loiter near their convertible for a few moments, then the older man walks off-screen to the motel's office to check out. Meanwhile, the younger goon drives the car slowly down to the office. All of this unfolds in a single long take , a shot that will end in horrifying fashion inside the office.

So far, so good. But this scene is also a bit of a red herring, a set piece that sets a sinister mood that the ensuing film doesn't reliably sustain. After the opening horror, the film makes a jarring jump-cut to a nearby town in Indiana where Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) is going about an ordinary workday, getting his kids off to school and carpooling with his lawyer wife (Maria Bello) to the diner he owns. Before the day is out, the two criminals from the motel will have confronted Tom in his diner, with fatal consequences.

When Tom becomes a 15-minute national celebrity, sinister figures start coming out of the woodwork, and soon Tom's beloved family is in danger. We learn, as they do, that Tom hasn't always been the stalwart model citizen.

The subsequent plot has its share of mystery and surprise, and Cronenberg spins out the tale with eerie precision. When events lead to he arrival of the Philadelphia mob, however, the generic script begins to show through the seams of the artistry. Instead of following the brutal determinism of Jacques Tourneur's 1947 noir Out of the Past, which has a similar premise, A History of Violence follows a well-trod-- if elegantly executed -- path of redemption through bloodshed. Furthermore, Cronenberg's depiction of the Philly mob is risible. After the lyricism of The Godfather and the suburban banality of The Sopranos, the black-suited thugs (led by Ed Harris and, in a late cameo, William Hurt) who lurk behind sunglasses and inside a creepy mansion are strictly straight-to-video material.

Despite the creaky plot, A History of Violence is an engrossing film in the Clint Eastwood tradition, both in its themes of violence and vigilantism and in its homely, handmade affect. Though I think such Eastwood efforts as Unforgiven, Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby are wildly overpraised, Eastwood is still a vital resource because his genre films have strong stories, serious intent and solid actors. Like Eastwood's most lauded films, A History of Violence is a genre picture that aspires to a ethical treatment of subjects that Hollywood typically trivializes.

Inevitably, A History of Violence is also as an allegory of President Bush's hubristic warmongering, according to interviews with Cronenberg. Though this film's already numerous critical champions have siezed on this connection and trumpeted it loudly, I wouldn't have known about the Bush angle without reading about it, and I have to say that I'd be more impressed if the film engaged the erotic appeal of violence with more originality and wit (again, see The Sopranos). Still, the film is the work of lefty outsiders and in the fashion of Lars von Trier, who makes his "American" movies in Europe, A History of Violence is set in a near-mythic, idealized America but was made in Cronenberg's native Canada. But for all of the ultimately underwhelming dramatic impact of A History of Violence, there's a decency, kindness and humanity to the characters that's not often seen in mainstream genre films, with Eastwood's work being a notable exception.

Eastwood's films are also appealing to adult sensibilities because they feature middle-aged actors playing middle-aged characters, and likewise, where A History of Violence succeeds, it's on the strength of warm, complex performances by Maria Bello and Viggo Mortensen, who play the most convincingly married couple on screen in recent memory (which is ironic, given the turns of the plot). Bello is sexy and compelling, and gives off just a hint of illicit arousal at her husband's revelations.

Mortensen, for his part, has the burden of escaping from the long locks and breastplates of Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings, and it remains to be seen whether he can leverage that exposure into an A-list career. Although a female friend of mine once dismissed him as a "calendar hunk," I have a fondness for the guy, and only partly because he's a lefty who writes poetry, rides horses, hangs with Cindy Sheehan in Crawford and was married to punk diva Exene Cervenka. More to the iconographic point, Mortensen's screen presence is a throwback to an age of more laconic and modest leading men, actors who conveyed physical and moral courage with a minimum of fuss while also revealing flickers of vulnerability. Such performers--Henry Fonda, Gregory Peck, Gary Cooper and, in his golden years, Clint Eastwood--have been displaced by the preening vanity of tools like Tom Cruise and Mel Gibson. Even if A History of Violence delivers less than promised, it is cause for some optimism that adult actors and adult stories may someday return to our screens on a regular basis.

Pretty Persuasion has been hyped by at least one national writer as the film that will catapult Evan Rachel Wood to stardom. Now that I've seen this vile, stumbling satire of nothing in particular, I think the Raleigh native should count her blessings if the film simply vanishes. In this inert and crude "satire," directed by music video veteran Marcos Siega, Wood plays Kimberly Joyce, a 15-year-old aspiring actress at a Beverly Hills prep school who schemes, seduces and exploits in her quest for ... something.

After we meet her at a professional audition in humiliating opening scene, we discover that Kimberly lives with a repulsive, anti-Semitic father (James Woods) and his trophy wife. One night, Kimberly goads her only two friends into making false sex allegations against their drama teacher (Ron Livingston) who, despite his innocence of the charges, lusts after his jailbait students and exploits his power to humiliate them sexually.

In Pretty Persuasion, Wood plays a motiveless villain like Iago, but one that labors in the absence of an Othello. In fairness, the film does finally supply a rationale for her villainy, but it turns out to be so banal that it eradicates whatever nihilistic justification one might care to erect on Kimberly's behalf. I won't give away the film's revelation, but it's all too fitting that Kimberly quotes a familiar and colorful metaphor that she probably knows originated in Othello.

With the exception of a sacrificial Arab girl, there's evil everywhere, from the perv schoolteachers to the abusive boyfriends to an opportunistic television journalist, but this scattershot film rarely hits its widely spaced and highly visible satirical targets, and it never confronts its worthiest quarry, the relentless vulgarization of teen sexuality.

The films that serve as obvious templates for Pretty Persuasion--the one about teen suicide with Winona Ryder and the one about teen politics with Reese Witherspoon--are so superior that they should be left unnamed and thus unsoiled by the association.

  • A History of Violence is well-intended but pretentious


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