Visitors to The House Next Door know how much I dislike David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence, last year’s almost-unanimously-praised thriller. My gripes are outlined in my New York Press review and in the comments section of this post. My distaste for the movie surprised me, considering my long record of finding nice things to say about Cronenberg when he wasn’t in favor. Even when critical consensus leaned against him (as was the case with Spider, a widely panned movie I adored), Cronenberg always spoke to me with a savage directness few filmmakers have mustered. But not this time. At the behest of its ardent defenders, I saw Violence again, but I still didn’t like it. Each new essay praising its monumental greatness makes me feel more isolated and nauseous.
Although Violence was surprisingly underrepresented in Tuesday’s Oscar nods, the rancor continues. The new issue of Bright Lights Film Journal spotlights Cronenberg’s movie in “Conflict Corner,” a Reverse Shot-style critical dustup in which critics take Yay or Nay positions on a particular title and then argue their cases. What makes this particular exchange so fascinating is that by accident or design, the critics touch on some of the same, very specific points of disagreement.
To give just one example, A. Jay Adler’s withering pan of the movie does not spare Cronenberg’s handling of Edie and Tom Stall’s sex life, which is fraught with highly theatrical roleplaying and moments where powerful submerged feelings explode into view. Adler finds Tom and Edie’s staircase tangle “perhaps the most bogus scene of violence-erupting-into-sex ever committed to film.”
But Megan Ratner, who adores the movie, finds the sex scenes funny, imaginative and on-point, particularly the stairwell tryst. “As (Edie) runs up the stairs of their house, Tom grabs her and what seems to be a rape turns out to be rough sex she appears to want even more than he does,” Ratner writes. “What’s so odd about this scene is that after the initial capture, Tom seems completely to follow her lead. When Edie pulls him aggressively towards her, it’s one of the few honest moments between them. By this time, she not only knows she’s married a hood but that he is exactly who she wants.”
Both pieces make me want to see Violence yet again. Does that mean Cronenberg is wearing me down?
Matt Zoller Seitz is the founder of The House Next Door.