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All Violent on the Western Front

David Cronenberg's new film is a relatively "normal" story of man killing man

Gruesome, unnatural and violent things happen in David Cronenberg films: bodies mutate, limbs fall off, heads explode. But the brutality in his new feature, A History of Violence, strikes a more familiar chord. A hard-working family man foils an attempted robbery in a small-town diner – killing two thugs but saving the lives of his customers and friends. There are no scientific experiments gone scarily wrong, no strange phenomena or fearsome parasites – just the frontier-style drama of man killing man.

“It’s got a very classic, iconic Americana feel to it,” says Cronenberg of the film, which had its North American première at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. Critics have called A History of Violence Cronenberg’s most accessible film in years, comparing it favourably to classic American Westerns in the style of director Sam Peckinpah or John Ford.

The script is an adaptation of a 1997 graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke, and centres on what happens after the killings turn the diner’s owner, Tom, into a national hero. The father of two tries to return to his old life, but is confronted by a mysterious and threatening man who accuses Tom of having wronged him in the past.

Cronenberg (BA 1967 UC, LLD Hon. 2001) says he was drawn to the screenplay partly because of an “urge to come to grips” with the Bush Administration’s “Wild West” approach to the world. However, he says A History of Violence is not an overtly political film (“it’s covertly political”), and explores the effects of bloodshed at a personal level. “I want the audience to be exhilarated and therefore complicit in the violence, and then to be repelled by the consequences of that violence,” he says.

One of Canada’s best known directors, Cronenberg shot his first film, Transfer, in 1966 while enrolled in the English literature program at University College. (Cronenberg began his studies in organic chemistry, but soon switched when he realized that it wouldn’t help him fulfil his goal at the time of becoming a “scientist who wrote fiction.”) The no-budget, 16-mm short about a psychiatrist and his patient was shot in a field during winter.

What keeps the 62-year-old inspired by filmmaking after almost 40 years? “It’s so difficult,” he says. “Each project brings its own set of challenges.”

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