EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED
starring Elijah Wood, Eugene Hutz, Boris Leskin, Laryssa Lauret
screenplay by Liev Schreiber, based on the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer
directed by Liev Schreiber
A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE
****/**** Image A Sound A Extras A
starring Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, Ed Harris, William Hurt
screenplay by Josh Olson, based on the graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke
directed by David Cronenberg
by Walter Chaw A year after a glut of films about the past being wilfully stifled by the present, find Liev Schreiber's Everything is Illuminated and David Cronenberg's A History of Violence, literal calls to awake following the nightmare of the night before--or, better, avenues through which we might recognize that suppressing a collective shadow mainly serves to nourish it until it explodes, monstrous, back into our consciousness. The one is based on an Anthony Burgess-like book of great linguistic imagination by Jonathan Safran Foer, the other a spare graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke--and just the obliqueness of the respective source materials speaks to the primacy of their message: "Everything is illuminated by the past." The keystone line in Schreiber's picture, this serves as a mission statement of sorts for both films, locating in the middle of this first decade of the new millennium something that feels like a weary acceptance that not only are we products of our trauma and misdeeds, but also that our trauma and misdeeds are beyond redress and completely inescapable. To parse the best line in Kenneth Branagh's Dead Again, it's the karmic payment plan: buy now, pay forever.
For Jonathan (Elijah Wood), a "collector" dressed like a Mormon and armed with a roll of baggies in which he traps the detritus of life, tacking it like fetishes on a corkboard wall, the "rigid search" for the woman who saved his grandfather from the Holocaust unfolds as a road trip. As carefully organized as Jonathan's wall, Everything is Illuminated is a collection of literary tropes tied together by the overriding quest structure of The Wizard of Oz, complete with Dorothy (Jonathan), Cowardly Lion (a self-hating Jew grandfather named Alex (Boris Leskin)), Scarecrow (Jonathan's malaprop-machine translator, Alex (Eugene Hutz)), and little dog Toto (a dog named Sammy Davis Jr. Jr.)--though the piece is curiously (and pointedly) bereft of a Tin Man figure searching for his heart. It introduces a wizard (Laryssa Lauret) on the heels of a jaunt in a sunflower patch (subbing for the poppy field) and even has an epilogue in which Jonathan sees the characters from his Ukrainian journey in the faces of passengers and employees at his hometown airport--and through it all, Schreiber slathers every scene in Technicolor generosity that makes the film's right-to-left movements (and die-cut roads) pop with an artificiality that's almost nostalgic. What's not to love about a sly visual gag that equates the lighted footfalls from Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" video with yellow brick roads from both the original and Jackson's own update, The Wiz.
The key to the film might be in the casting. Schreiber creates his best visual and narrative effect by choosing to enhance Wood's huge eyes, the actor's most startling feature (note how Robert Rodriguez subverts them in Sin City), with coke-bottle glasses--the equivalent of putting a magnifying glass on Melanie Griffith's ass. Much of Everything is Illuminated concerns sight and ways of seeing, those lenses not so much the lenses in a camera as in a microscope. When the film works best, it has its characters trading points-of-view like a secret in a whisper game, with its three moments of actual "illumination" in the film finding the hero blinded, robbed of his spectacles. Hutz is compulsively watchable as what's essentially a slapstick racial caricature--a Cyrillic version of Paul Kaye's Frankie Wilde from It's All Gone Pete Tong, made up of lithe gestures and frantic, nervy, energy--and Leskin, asked to essentially play the picture of that old guy who could swallow his face, is up to that task.
But the film derails for good somewhere around the time that Jonathan and his fellow pilgrims discover their wizard and learn the fate of their Kansas: a town called Trachimbrod stomped flat by "German fascism" sometime in late 1942. Schreiber jerks from the cheery oompah-band whimsy of his first hour into forced-flashbacks and a late-revelation about the grandfather that results in a series of events made so inscrutable that the effect is less poetic (as it is in the often-maddening book) than simply coy--coy probably the last thing a Holocaust melodrama should be, of course. (It's good also to avoid "obtuse," "cute," and "pretentious.") Schreiber should have been content with the totemic beauty of a sepia photograph that evokes any moment from Days of Heaven, paired with a pendant of a locust encased in amber that Jonathan wields like a talisman against forgetfulness. The picture only really falls apart, after all, when it gets too interested in heady pronouncements and buried wedding bands. (The unfortunate, inescapable Lord of the Rings irony here is that the end of this journey for Wood's character is another damn ring.) I can see the filmmaker's attraction to Foer's novel, packed as it is with hyper-cinematic images, but Schreiber so softens the poesy and controversy of the source that the moments that actually capture Foer's darkness and irony (like its sudden slapstick "domestic" violence, or when Alex innocently wonders aloud "What's wrong with the Negroes?") land with an unpleasant thud in the middle of all that beautiful quirk.
The past that catches up with A History of Violence's Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen)--even his name evokes a temporary abeyance--similarly involves violence, flight, and denial before the eventual, inevitable embrace of the Jungian shadow, collective or personal. It opens languidly with a conversation between two drifters that ends with a shock-reveal, proceeding into the introduction of a pastoral small-town setting where Stall is a beloved, diner-owning member of a Rockwellian Midwest community. The drifters intrude like monsters from the Id (they're driven, it seems, by the same base concerns as Cronenberg's sexual parasites), and Stall fights them off with the kind of heroism that leads to national news crews camping out on his front lawn. The attention attracts the notice of one-eyed mobster Carl Fogaty (Ed Harris, in his best performance in years), henchman for mid-level kingpin Richie Cusack (William Hurt, ditto), asking the key question of Tom's wife, Edie (Maria Bello): how she supposes mild-mannered Tom knows how to kill so well.
It's not just the skill, of course, it's the relish, and the way Cronenberg and Mortensen approach Tom's gradual reawakening to the call of his lizard brain is, in its way, as sly a character deconstruction as Dennis Cleg's in Spider, or that of Dead Ringers' Mantle brothers. More so than usual, Cronenberg's character implosion becomes a meta-commentary on the audience for the kind of questionable entertainments this film represents--Stall is the director's first genuine "everyman": no outsider, not unbalanced by ambition or the urge to evolve into a biomechanical form, he is the insect that dreamed he was a man from his The Fly--and for maybe the first time, we cheer his inhumanity rather than mourn the loss of his humanity. Confounding (astounding) in its ambition, A History of Violence has even larger aspirations, tackling the lie of the myth of the bucolic, prelapsarian small-town with the twisted, literary dread of Ray Bradbury's "Mars is Heaven". Each member of Stall's family is singled out for bemused scrutiny (most jarring about A History of Violence is Cronenberg's trademark scalpel intellectualism applied to the "innocents"), purified in the crucible of our lowest animal motivations. Edie's sexual fantasies, son Jack's (Ashton Holmes) nascent rage, young daughter Sarah's (Heidi Hayes) budding complicity in dad's reintegration into society post-metamorphosis: each is manipulated metaphysically in turn, each is challenged by Cronenberg's precise, machinelike inquiries to reveal the beast hiding in the skin.
Cronenberg is somehow getting better as he goes along. He's funnier and more cocksure than he's ever been in A History of Violence, a superb comedy of manners and as devastating an indictment of the thin veneer of civilization as Lars Von Trier's Dogville. Tellingly, it's almost as challenging a text: its artificiality in design and logic--like Everything is Illuminated's--is an instant mnemonic throwback to a certain kind of B studio production (wry in that this is Cronenberg's alleged "sell out" to big studio backing and A-list stars), understanding that just the fact of that "period" feel fuels the idea of the past imposing itself on the present. And its last scene, the last shot of Tom's face twisted by some ambiguous emotion, is haunted in its understatement and the vastness of its implications; the true aftershocks of A History of Violence aren't that things will never be the same, but the infinitely more troubling possibility that things may never have been--and, indeed, can never be--any different. Originally published: September 23, 2005.
by Bill Chambers New Line's Platinum Series DVD of A History of Violence is quite a spread. Start with an exceptional 1.82:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer whose only caveat is in regards to overall luminance--this is one movie for which you'll need to dim the lights. In that sense, it betrays a striking fidelity to the theatrical presentation, and for what it's worth shadow detail is rarely less than excellent. The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is likewise as I remembered: purposefully restrained, with each swift detonation of violence acting like jumper cables for a dormant LFE channel. Dialogue sounds crystal clear. Meanwhile, David Cronenberg contributes another in a long line of feature-length commentaries, this one marred a bit by more dead air than usual and intermittently patronizing explication of the onscreen action. Perhaps this is proof of what detractors saw as Cronenberg's underlying contempt for the material and, by extension, the audience that normally flocks to revenge movies, but there's something innocently, nay, graciously paternalistic about his desire to include every member of what will probably be his biggest DVD audience yet. His swelling with pride over the picture's claim to fame (the first depiction of a 69 in a studio release) is utterly genuine, though, as are the respects he pays the late composer Michael Kamen at the beginning of the track.
Directed by Cronenberg épouse Carolyn Zeifman--hence her unprecedented access to the set (this is the first time I can ever recall seeing B-roll captured during the filming of a sex scene)--and edited by Julie Ng (who oversaw that great documentary on Willard), the 66-minute, 8-part fly-on-the-wall documentary "Acts of Violence" is where it's at. It's a treat to watch Cronenberg direct--he's flexible but confident and knows to flatter actors into thinking they're having brilliant epiphanies when they're really coming around to his hidden agenda--and to watch him micromanage the makeup effects, though I wish the scope of this making-of had been expanded to encompass pre- and post-production. I also wonder if a tad more editorializing was in order (David Prior's often-wry text annotations are missed), as there's insufficient context for actor Greg Bryk's crackpot remarks that he wants to know what it would feel like to hold a little girl at gunpoint. Next find "Scene 44" (3 mins.), complete with optional commentary from Cronenberg; like The Fly Special Edition's "monkey-cat" scene, this omitted nightmare sequence was finished specifically for the DVD, as Cronenberg jettisoned it early on in the editing process for being tonally inconsistent with the rest of the film. (As such, it's presented in anamorphic widescreen and 5.1 Dolby Digital.) An appendix of sorts to "Acts of Violence", "The Unmaking of Scene 44" (7 mins.) goes behind-the-scenes of the titular elision. Here, Ed Harris, who has already confessed that the chance to work with Cronenberg was the only thing that appealed to him about A History of Violence, genially laughs off the hours he spent inside a prosthetic chest cavity. "I don't get off on that stuff like David does," he says, "but I enjoy his enjoyment of it." It's a lovely moment.
In "Violence's History: U.S. Version Vs. International Version" (1 mins.), Cronenberg explains that since the two cuts differ by a mere couple of shots (compared side-by-side in splitscreen), New Line could hardly justify the expense of putting both of them on the DVD. Surprisingly, I think, the MPAA let every frame of T&A slide--their main problem was with the volume of blood that gushes out of fallen henchmen. Lastly, "Too Commercial for Cannes" (9 mins.) opens with Cronenberg asserting that he hopes the film is too mainstream for La Croisette; it wasn't, which all but confirms that the auteur is a little out of touch with what constitutes commercial cinema these days. We then shadow Cronenberg at Cannes as he juggles responsibilities to A History of Violence (press junkets, red-carpet appearances) and the French edition of PREMIERE, for whom he's covering the festival as a guest journalist. Alas, Viggo Mortensen's Sam Houston getup steals a lot of his thunder, at least from where we're sitting. Teaser and full trailers for A History of Violence, startup trailers for Take the Lead, 11:14, Havoc, and Domino, and ROM-based weblinks round out the platter. Originally published: March 13, 2006.