By Bob Clark
One of the great strengths of the comics medium that I’ve belabored upon is how any given panel on a page can stand on its own as a frozen moment in time, building sequences of linear action and non-sequitor stream of consciousness through static snapshots rather than the fluid, flowing continuities of motion pictures. As such, in a well conceived and executed graphic novel, every single image carries a heavy significance to it, remaining on its page and in the reader’s attention for as long as they wish to rest upon it. This gives the timespan of comics a subjective dimension– moments that take mere seconds in a story can be stretched out to minutes or hours if a viewer wishes to dwell there– and it makes the way that works of graphic fiction that deal explicitly with our experiences in time both present and past somewhat more unnerving. There’s perhaps no medium where flashbacks are more natural, where one’s experience of reading is already akin to leafing through the pages of a photo-album, all those pictures laid out just like comics panels (in a sense one could insist that they are a form of comics, themselves). As such, it makes telling a work dedicated to the secrets and lies of a person’s past that much more interesting an endeavor, and there’s few places to compare and contrast the way in which the medium holds advantage over others than in the case of the graphic novel A History of Violence and its film adaptation.
As written by Judge Dredd-creator John Wagner and illustrated by Sandman artist Vince Locke, the book offers a refreshingly unpretentious piece of straightforward pulp crime-thriller and two-fisted action, the kind that guys like Nick Ray or Sam Fuller would’ve gladly shot straight from the page back in the day. After defending his diner from a pair of blood-thirsty crooks with lethal efficiency, a small-town family man called Tom finds his world thrown upside-down by a sudden case of celebrity that turns sinister when it draws the attention of an aging gangster, insisting that the local hero is someone from his criminal past. Though at first Tom goes to great lengths to deny any association with the menacing mobster, anybody who’s seen or read a noir or two in any medium will already be winding up the egg-timer in their heads to see just how long it takes to find out the truth about this placid restauranteur. Yes, there’s always precedent for a Hitchcock-style Wrong Man, but from the first moment you see him on the page, squinting his narrow eyes through a pair of glasses so thick and plain they look as though he might’ve picked up Clark Kent’s prescription by mistake from a Smallville pharmacy, you can tell he’s got something to hide. Friendly neighbors congratulate the man, calling him “Rambo mixed with Superman”, hammering in deep the notion of this all-American hero in the mid-west, hiding in plain sight. By the end there’s even a Lex Luthor look-alike in the person of a ruthless mob boss with a score to settle against our almost superhuman protagonist, and if it weren’t all drawn in black-and-white you could almost be forgiven for expecting to see the green glow of kryptonite as his ace in the hole.
It makes sense for a graphic novel (especially one published under the DC imprint Vertigo) to appropriate the iconography of perhaps the most famous comic-book superhero in existence to express some of the psychological import of a man trying to hide away from his big-city past. It’s an instant way for comics fans to understand right away that there’s something this seemingly ordinary guy is hiding beneath his mild-mannered exterior, and that in a way we might have reason to suspect anyone who aspires for the mild-mannered smalltown lifestyle to begin with. Though he manages to dispatch his attackers throughout the book with an impressive efficiency, there’s a strangely reluctant, even hesitant and anxious air about him in all the sequences in between, as though he were constantly suppressing the urge to whip off his glasses and blast his foes with a healthy dose of heat-vision. He may have the ability to fight off his enemies with displays of strength that make you half believe that leaping a tall building in a single bound wouldn’t be that much of a challenge for him, but more often than not Tom’s first impulse is to play nice, hand over the money, or at the very worst call the police. Even during a threatening phone call from them, there’s an indignant quality to his sudden outburst, shouting about how he’s a “decent, law-abiding citizen”. It’s a bigger threat for him to lodge a “formal complaint” than it is to say he’ll kill them for coming near his wife and kids– this is the closet-case superhero as a bureaucrat and functionary, the one who believes in upholding all the rules instead of breaking the ones that restrict folks from turning vigilante. This isn’t just a Superman who poses as Clark Kent as a wry joke on the humanity he’s protecting (as per Tarantino’s paraphrasing of Jules Feiffer’s commentary in Kill Bill), but instead a Superman who genuinely wants to be Clark Kent, and nothing more.
It deserves noting that there’s a journalistic quality to Vince Locke’s art throughout the book that’s somehow in keeping with all the allusions to a superhero who poses as a reporter for the Daily Planet. Sketched with a simple pen-and-ink efficiency throughout that makes it look as though he could’ve drawn up the book in the confines of a steno-pad while drifting through rural America and listening to tall-tales shared amongst diner patrons, the book carries the same kind of documentary quality that hastily done courtroom paintings have, on cases where the media isn’t allowed to bring cameras, to better protect everyone involved. John Wagner’s writing favors more of the visual language of comics than an abundance of flowery prose in the manner of an Alan Moore or Frank Miller– you can almost see the old 2000 AD pro writing more to the page, more to the artist than he is to the word-balloons or captions, summing up whole lifetimes’ worth of drama and suspense with a few carefully selected moments in time for the artist to represent. You even sense that the two of them could’ve gotten away with adding a page at the beginning claiming the book was based on a true story, making it a graphic novel equivalent to Capote’s In Cold Blood, or at the very least a high-concept joke on the same level of the Coen Brothers’ Fargo. There’s a credibility to the noir- trappings at work in this book, a sense you feel that it could be happening somewhere in the American countryside just beyond the borders of your town, that the pastoral landscape of the mid-west is still a territory where old gunslingers can retreat and make for themselves new lives and new beginnings at the drop of a hat, whatever color it might be.
As a graphic novel, A History of Violence may be printing the legend instead as all mythic-crime stories tend to do, but there’s a higher quotient of fact between the covers of this work than you tend to find in most tellings, and certainly more than one can find in the film adaptation as written by Josh Olsen and as directed by David Cronenberg, perhaps the least likely candidate in the world for this kind of genre-realism, at least until it managed to hijack his cinematic reputation for the past decade. While on page the biggest cultural cornerstone that Wagner and Locke touch upon is Superman, on film you can see Cronenberg and cinematographer Peter Suschitzky paying immediate and obvious homage to plenty of the great American painters, Edward Hopper and Norman Rockwell, especially, for their depictions of the everyday novelty and malaise at the heart of the nation’s landscape in small and big towns alike. What’s interesting is how they intersect with the references of the book– Hopper, Rockwell and the Superman comics are all dealing, in a rather broad sense, with that particular stretch of time in the American consciousness from the Depression to a little after World War II, where things like civic-virtue, responsibility and patriotism were more than just hackneyed political catchphrases to be dropped at the first sign of a hat being tossed into an electoral ring, but deep and powerful reservoirs of emotional power to motivate whole populations towards ennobling goals. On the page, Wagner and Locke do their best to reveal so many of these quaint ideals as kinds of paper tigers, tearing them down at the first note of trouble and violence, only to make feeble attempts to patch them up again with nothing more than tape and glue. One of the things that’s interesting about the book is how immediate the action is– barely ten pages pass until the fateful encounter between Tom and the two crooks looking to rob his diner.
On film, however, no less than twenty minutes go by until the same sequence occurs, the time until then killed with attempts to build up the romantic ideal of the small-town setting as a kind of bygone era you’d have thought, or at least hoped, the country had outgrown its nostalgia for. On one level, this is a somewhat necessary choice if the film is going to work in the same kind of subtly subversive register as the graphic novel– in comics form, one can depend on the subjective nature of the reader’s experience through time to lengthen and deepen an opening that hits the ground running and doesn’t look back. In film, however, we need more time to set up even the most easily recognizable of sacred civic cows if we’re going to go out tipping them, at least if you want them to be more than just easily disposed of stereotypes. While Wagner and Lock expect the reader to take their time and add more dimension to the pared down story they supply, Olsen and Cronenberg take the time themselves to render a dream of the American mid-west that’s both expressionistic and cozily familiar. We know we’re in a heightened form of reality that we can’t necessarily buy as trustworthy, but it’s just close enough to the everyday and our desires of the norm to slip past our defenses subconsciously. Or at least that’s the intention– Cronenberg talks about a desire on his DVD commentary to offer something more genuine than the absurdist nightmares of David Lynch, and maybe it says something more about the superficial nature of cultural archetypes in general that they can become so difficult to take seriously, but it’s hard to suppress the automatic instinct to scoff at the sight of a middle-aged wife dressing up as a cheerleader for sex-games with the husband or various local color elements that establishes the town as a kind of lost Americana as mythical as the underwater city of Atlantis.
As such, there’s a queer kind of vertigo in the film, that isn’t quite there on the page. In Cronenberg’s hands, we’re presented with an ideal vision of an American landscape we know full well is either pure myth or something that belongs to the past, and we’re asked to take it seriously and respond to it on an emotional level so that the violence to come can feel all the more jarring and threatening, all to better reveal that ideal American vision as one that is utterly false. In other words, the film is going to extreme lengths to lead us to a conclusion that we very likely have already gotten to ahead of time, right at the sight of these cultural archetypes to begin with– putting all that effort to build up the idol just to tear it down seems something of a waste when the idol itself can almost do just as well. There’s something like this in Wagner and Locke’s approach, which wastes no time and pulls no punches in the way that it sets up its small-town roots not prior to the explosions of violence but through them, like the opening moments of a punctual Hollywood Western. On page, there’s more effort to build up the ideal picture of the town after Tom’s initial confrontation with the criminals, so that we have something of a baseline of risk and stakes to deal with as we take in all the friendly neighbors and baseball games. Both the book and the film open with the diner-crooks committing another set of unrelated murders on their way to the town, but these merely set up a kind of existential threat for the viewers, reminding us of the general dangers out there in the world and not ones that are tied directly to our protagonists. This makes the ways that our characters are introduced to us that much more important to pay attention to– on page, Tom is no sooner established as a Clark Kent wanna-be than he’s forced to display his fighting skills for all the world to see.
In the film, however, Cronenberg emphasizes Tom as a family man and clear-cut ideal of American masculinity, first and foremost. Far from the mild-mannered, bespectacled picture of the nebbishy weakling we get on the page, the film’s Tom, as played by Viggo Mortensen, looks as though he could’ve stepped off the package to a roll of Brawny paper-towels. He’s all lantern-jaw alpha-male, another play to the ideal of the American landscape rather than a subversion of it– yes, on the page the Clark Kent appearance that the character has makes a clear reference to the Man of Steel, but it’s telling that he so closely identifies with the mortal side of the superhero, with the scrawny alter-ego. Wagner and Locke are playing a double-con on the reader, giving Tom a subliminal reservoir of strength to rely upon behind his mild-mannered facade, but at the same time reinforcing that facade as the true aspiration for his character, investing him with just as much weakness and vulnerability as they are empowerment. His self-righteous demeanor and those ridiculous looking glasses call back to Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, and the milquetoast nerd played by Dustin Hoffman, fending off a whole army of alpha-male Neanderthals in his unfinished home, earning the right to his masculinity by spilling the blood of others and his own. As such, the book’s Tom stands as a loaded, ironic figure from both directions, someone who doesn’t quite fit as the alpha or beta male. The film’s Tom, on the other hand, begins so assuredly as the Hollywood masculine ideal that it’s harder to take anything he does– from coolly dispatch his enemies to wrap himself in knots over lying to his family– quite as seriously. We even have a foil for his form in the person of his bullied son, who slowly begins adopting his father’s violent traits to assert his position in small-town adolescence. From start to finish, he’s always something of an archetype himself, but one that has enough cultural dominance to assert itself even when being pulled apart.
In a sense, you can almost see Cronenberg having some fun with taking the stalwart male role-model ideal and tearing it down a peg or two. A sequence where Viggo Mortensen’s Tom runs limpingly over hill and dale to his home, fearing a posse of gangsters is on the way, only to arrive out of breath and laughingly spent, feels like an elaborate parody of the same kind of epic marathons the actor ran in the Lord of the Rings films, complete with a robust score from Howard Shore. At some of its best moments, the director plays the film’s violence less as occasions for his typical body-horror gore (though there’s plenty of that) and more as matters of absurdist humor, especially during the climax with a scenery-chewing William Hurt. Here, the film succeeds in making an effort to genuinely tear down the cultural and genre institutions it props up by investing itself of its action, instead of its often lame-duck melodrama. Especially interesting is how Cronenberg cuts his fights into series of close-ups and mediums, without injecting any longer takes or masters to give us a sense of corresponding geography or spatial logic to the violence. It helps the explosions of action work on a visceral, emotional level without descending into the sheer incoherence of modern-era Bourne style shaky-cam and choppy editing and all the false docu-verite signals they represent. Even more importantly, however, it allows these sequences to thrive with the same kind of subjective experience through time that the graphic-novel does, subliminally slowing down the sequence in its bite-sized chunks without using actual slow-motion. Without the benefit of masters to provide maps to the terrain of the violence, each on-screen action has to stand on its own in a way that gives it a spatial and temporal independence from the moments it’s cut into.
It allows split-second fights to last longer on screen than they would in reality, and furthermore allows Cronenberg to play with the choreography in ways that don’t have to live up to actual logic– half of the things Tom does in the film would get him killed in real life, but the editing helps let him get away with it on an absurdist level that doesn’t completely undermine the plausibility of the events. It also allows Cronenberg to get away with an impressively ambiguous display of sexuality that’s on par with Peckinpah’s controversial Straw Dogs rape sequence as Tom and his wife shift abruptly from a scene of domestic violence to share an angry fuck on the stairs. Not present anywhere in Wagner and Locke’s book or Josh Olsen’s screenplay, the director’s invention here stands as one of his more intriguing displays of subversive sexual behavior, made all the more compelling for how it reaches for realism instead of the sci-fi perversion of films past. Framing and cutting the sequence with the same unpredictability as one of the film’s fight sequences, it looks and feels rather different from most of the director’s other displays of sexuality on screen, where events are dwelled upon and afforded ample focus and time to bask in the camera’s vision, the better to accommodate the high-concept taboos being broken onscreen. As impressive as all those fetishistic exercises are, there’s sometimes a fairly scripted quality to the eroticism, as though the partners are following the explicit instructions of a book of Kama Sutra for mutants, their perversely arranged biological and psychological hang-ups standing in the way of more passionate outbursts of improvised sexuality.
Here, Cronenberg lets it all hang out in an abrupt, unscheduled and unsettling manner, capturing each action with the same frenetic focus as his action sequences, and then capping it off with a post-coital moment of casual domestic nudity– Tom’s wife suddenly walking into their bedroom seemingly hours later wearing nothing but an open bathrobe, as if to remind the audience of everything the scene just prior wasn’t about. Though much of the film surrounding it doesn’t always work on the same sophisticated levels as the director has accomplished in the past, this scene alone helps pull the weight of its bulk and stands as a great example of the premature climax in modern mainstream cinema (pun only slightly intended), with everything that follows at William Hurt’s gangster-castle serving more as an extended comic denouement than a real final confrontation. It’s here where we see that Cronenberg’s main focus on the dramatic import of the film is the matter of trust– all the savage violence that Tom inflicts on his enemies is secondary to the hurt he inadvertently causes after his duplicity is revealed to his family. It’s something that the book never quite approaches, despite all the careful play with the iconography of secret identities– Tom may be many things over the course of the story, but on page he’s never a stranger to his wife and kids, something the becomes for the movie to such a regard that we even get lamely written speeches about multiple-personalities and born-again syndrome that sound as though they belong in an Incredible Hulk movie. Perhaps there’s a slick kind of synchronicity to that effect– on page Tom is something of a Clark Kent, and in film more of a Bruce Banner, the kind of guy who’s pleasant to friends but you wouldn’t like when he’s angry.
As another appropriation of comic-book iconography it works more or less, though on a much shallower level than the savvy subversion of pop-iconography that Wagner and Locke play with. Their vision of Tom’s secret past as the mysterious Joey is also something that’s dealt with in the book with a characteristically defter hand than the grotesque legend in Olsen’s script of an unrestrained, libidinous gangster who relishes in unprovoked sex and violence to such an extent that he seems less a fully fleshed character and more an abstractly personified representation of the Id. In the graphic novel, we’re treated to an extended flashback which serves to provide the rationale for Joey’s hiding out in the mid-west as Tom, under surprisingly guiltless circumstances, helping a childhood friend exact revenge against the made-men who executed his small-time hood of a brother. Their escalation from petty big-city thievery to full-scale urban warfare is rendered with a strange mixture of childish innocence and cold-blooded efficiency– planning the logistics of their hit with toy soldiers and cars on the living-room floor, and then carrying out their plans wearing Boy Scout uniforms to distract their enemies. Every element helps key back into the games the work as a whole plays with the iconography of American youth and the archetypes of comic-books in general (Superman himself is often labeled “the big blue Boy Scout”), in ways that both help undermine the hollow qualities of the pacifistic American dream at the narrative’s heart and take crucial look at the ways in which even the more mature examples of their chosen medium help to prop those artificial-constructs up.
When Joey and his vendetta-seeking friend seek to purchase a small arsenal of weapons, they seek out a rural arms-dealer who’s drawn as the spitting image of Alan Moore, the long-maned and bearded mad prophet of the comics-page, and one of the men who almost singlehandedly transformed the medium of Western comics from one aimed solely at children to one that produced works that were mostly appropriate only for adults. Wagner himself had something to do with that in his Judge Dredd stories, of course, and in the end his appropriation of the cultural elements of comics helps make the graphic novel telling of A History of Violence something of a treatise on the nature of comics themselves and the effect that they can have on audiences of any age. The film, by building up the idealized American image and focusing on the absurdist elements of its premise, works less as a whole in its efforts to dramatize the corrosive effects of violence on the community and a person’s image of themselves, but at its best moments it at least manages to capture something about the fracturing nature of force and archetypes on the family unit. It is by no means the best, or most incisive work by any of those involved– Wagner’s iconic work for 2000 AD rank as some of the most blisteringly entertaining works of comics-satire ever made, and Cronenberg has obviously gone deeper into this kind of well on his own and come up with far more promising and inventive works, but the results they both secure make the efforts feel at least somewhat worthwhile. Through experimenting in the graphic novel form here, Wagner and his body of work as a whole gains a literary respectability that’s sometimes lacking in the realm of the pure comic-book world, and Cronenberg gained a traction for mainstream success that he hadn’t quite had since they heyday of The Fly. For what they’re worth, both the comics and cinematic versions of A History of Violence at least make an honest attempt to penetrate the wholesome facade of the small-town, mid-western mythos. And though neither gets anywhere near as close as guys like David Lynch have routinely over the years, at least they deliver the same message– a wake-up call to the American dream.