Film Studies: Why are some of the greatest American movies made in Canada?

On September 23, a great American movie opened in the US, and New Line, the distributor, revealed it at just 14 theatres. I am not complaining - I love and respect old-fashioned opening plans where just a few cities get a picture at first and then the word goes out. And New Line had their arguments: it wasn't that David Cronenberg was prepared to have this movie called Recoil! or The Last Day in Tom Stall's Life. No, this movie has a chilling edge of academic authority or analytic dread. It's called A History of Violence. And it's the first unmistakably great American film since Mulholland Dr., even if it is made by a Canadian.

Cronenberg is 62 now. Born and raised in Toronto, he still lives there, and his work is followed at an international level, but without the solid, financial reward that can change a man, or an artist. When he made Spider a few years ago, an uncompromisingly bleak study of schizophrenia in which Ralph Fiennes had hardly a word of dialogue, Cronenberg's determination to follow his own vision nearly destroyed the enterprise for lack of funds. And there will be some viewers now inclined to see A History of Violence as a sell-out, a desperate excursion into full-blooded film noir about the kind of things that happen - notoriously - not in Canada but in the United States.

Tom Stall is a gaunt-looking fellow with a dreamy smile on his face and an easy manner that fits in to the small Indiana town where he owns a diner called Stall's. He looks a lot like Viggo Mortensen. He has a wife, Maria Bello, and two decent kids. The teenage boy is mocked at school for not being as male as Indiana prefers. But Tom and his wife still have a wild, tender sex life of the kind that might not be owned up to in all towns in Indiana. But even though this is "sleepy" Indiana, the air is as taut as an old wire ready to snap. Something terrible is coming, and we know after just a few minutes that Cronenberg has devised and outfitted the terror in keeping with the "Let's do an experiment" tone of the title.

In the past, Cronenberg has been one of the world's most creative experimenters with the horror genre. I suspect that was because he felt able to push that genre towards his own necessary economy plus the quite startling dismemberment or parasitic possession of his vision. This was evident in They Came From Within, Rabid, The Brood, The Dead Zone and even The Fly, which was the first glorious blooming of his special sense of humour. But still, there was something very deliberate in Cronenberg that felt unable to get into what you might call popular genre. But like many ascetics, familiarity with his own medium has made his search for formal beauty more fundamental. And that is what is so American: for nearly always, I think, the most radical departures in American come with the telling of the old, old stories.

So this is a myth composed by a master that operates at the level of pulp fiction, or graphic novel - its actual source material. Ed Harris and later William Hurt take a huge exultant pleasure in knowing that they are playing stock figures from that tradition. And they know that we are loving hating them. But beyond that this is a superb story of a marriage, in which a great lie has been told, but guessed at? And even hoped for? The interaction of Mortensen and Maria Bello is actually the core to what the title is about, and their two love and sex scenes are the essence of this stunning movie. And when the family next sits down to dinner together the air is still taut with new discoveries and the affirmation of very old truths. By letting himself make a simpler kind of picture, Cronenberg has left us not so much with his glittering intelligence as a kind of question that the US has to ask itself.

Quite deliberately, I am not telling you the story of A History of Violence. That's because it employs a formula you've seen before, but gives it a radically new rhythm, one in which the atmosphere of the title is not just the energy that renews the country and which makes it safe and dangerous again. This film is a preparation for the uncertainty of the last few shots.

Just as with the close of The Deer Hunter, where survivors sing softly, "America the Beautiful", we are left to weight the balance of irony and forgiveness.

Those two films are ideal material to be shown to soldiers just returned from a war where the ordeal of survival eclipsed all thought of what the war was about.

'A History of Violence' (18) is out this week.

d.thomson@independent.co.uk

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
A waxwork of Jane Austen has been unveiled at The Jane Austen Centre in Bath

books
Arts and Entertainment
Britney Spears has been caught singing without Auto-Tune

music
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Caral Barat of The Libertines performs on stage at British Summer Time Festival at Hyde Park

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea perform on stage at the Billboard Music Awards 2014

music
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

    Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

    Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

    Why did we stop eating whelks?

    Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice