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History lessons

Movies | Their critical obsession with the subversive is borne out in the reaction to the latest releases by David Cronenberg and Roman Polanski

Issue: "Miers doesn't fit the mold," Oct. 15, 2005

David Cronenberg and Roman Polanski could both be described as subversive filmmakers. Mr. Cronenberg (Naked Lunch, Dead Ringers, The Fly) regularly plunges into graphic explorations of body mutilation and sexual perversity. Mr. Polanski (The Pianist, Chinatown, Rosemary's Baby), a visual aesthete by comparison, frequently examines similar themes of sexual repression and victimization.

Critics tend to love outsiders and subversives, and so Mr. Cronenberg and Mr. Polanski, only intermittently successful in reaching broader audiences, are critical favorites.

This critical obsession with the subversive is borne out in the reaction to the latest release from each, Mr. Cronenberg's A History of Violence and Mr. Polanski's Oliver Twist. Mr. Cronenberg's incendiary film is being heralded as one of the best of the year. But Mr. Polanski's straightforward, largely faithful retelling of Charles Dickens' oft-filmed tale has left most critics bored and unmoved.

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My own reaction was just the opposite: A History of Violence's chilly intellectualism left me cold, while Oliver Twist's warmly beating heart struck a much deeper cord of both emotional and moral complexity.

A History of Violence (rated R for strong brutal violence, graphic sexuality, nudity, language, and some drug use) is set in fictional Middlebrook, Ind. Viggo Mortensen plays Tom Stall, a family man and diner owner whose idyllic life blends perfectly with his surroundings-until that life is interrupted by violence. Two killers enter Tom's diner one evening just before closing. His own safety and that of his employees and patrons at stake, Tom acts quickly and coolly, overpowering and killing both would-be robbers.

Shortly thereafter, another set of shady figures enters Tom's diner. A group of Philadelphia hoods, led by a quietly mean Ed Harris, thinks Tom is actually former associate and wanted man Joey Cusack. Tom's calm country life with wife Edie (Maria Bello) and two kids is undermined to its core.

A History of Violence's portentous title suggests multiple meanings for this compelling premise. Mr. Cronenberg cleverly utilizes Western and gangster motifs-both classically American genres-to complement a very American small-town setting. A Canadian and an atheist, Mr. Cronenberg seems to think of moral imperatives and individual righteousness as peculiarly American ideas. But, for a film so concerned with history, that seems like a remarkably shallow perspective.

As soon as it becomes clear that the film is going to sway more toward the broader, more symbolic interpretation-a history of violence in the generic, rather than personal, sense-the story falters. As an intellectual exercise, A History of Violence has almost nothing of interest to say, because the film is devoid of moral categories. The film's violence, for all its brutality (matched by two equally forceful sex scenes), becomes abstracted from context-full of sound and fury but signifying nothing. The film is full of references to American history and culture, even faith, but it all serves to flatten. The cross hanging around Tom's neck is there for the very reason that it's meaningless-it has no effect on his behavior.

But then there's Mr. Polanski's fine effort in adapting Oliver Twist (rated PG-13 for disturbing images), which provides a real immediacy to its moral dilemmas. The director's characteristic darkness comes through occasionally, but it is moderated and appropriate to the tale. The film's rating will help warn off parents of younger kids-Oliver's life on London's mean streets is harrowing-but this is a generally mild story full of wonderful humor and insight.

Barney Clark plays Oliver, and he's surrounded by an excellent cast of British stalwarts-Ben Kingsley as Fagan, Edward Hardwick as the kindly Mr. Brownlow, and Jamie Foreman as the ferocious Bill Sikes.

Mr. Polanski and screenwriter Ronald Harwood shave off some of Dickens' characters and subplots, but to the apparent consternation of many, there's really no modern subtext or reinterpretation here, and Oliver is wonderfully served by this restraint.

Dickens' classic tale doesn't need a modern reinterpretation. Oliver's plight is still affecting, and the simple story challenges our attitudes toward the poor and destitute and provides wonderful contrasts between the harshness of Oliver's orphan life and simple acts of kindness and mercy. Oliver's execution night visit to Fagan's prison cell is as simply powerful a moment as can be found in any film so far this year.

Oliver Twist may seem simplistic in its representations of good and evil, but the fact that they are allowed to exist together on screen-and even in the same character-provides for complexity that powerfully overshadows Mr. Cronenberg's existential muddle.

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