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

Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
TV
News
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
art
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
'Africa' will be Angelina Jolie's fifth film as a director

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

music
Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

art
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Len Goodman appeared to mutter the F-word after Simon Webbe's Strictly performance

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T makes his long-awaited return to the London stage
musicReview: Alexandra Palace, London
Arts and Entertainment
S Club 7 back in 2001 when they also supported 'Children in Need'
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Bruce Forsyth rejoins Tess Daly to host the Strictly Come Dancing Children in Need special
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan plays Christian Grey getting ready for work

Film More romcom than S&M

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Review: The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
The comedian Daniel O'Reilly appeared contrite on BBC Newsnight last night

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
The American stand-up Tig Notaro, who performed topless this week

Comedy...to show her mastectomy scars

Arts and Entertainment

TVNetflix gets cryptic

Arts and Entertainment
Claudia Winkleman is having another week off Strictly to care for her daughter
TV
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Children in Need is the BBC's UK charity. Since 1980 it has raised over £600 million to change the lives of disabled children and young people in the UK

TV review A moving film showing kids too busy to enjoy their youth

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his winning novel

Books Not even a Man Booker prize could save Richard Flanagan from a nomination

Arts and Entertainment
Bryan Cranston will play federal agent Robert Mazur in The Infiltrator

Books
Latest stories from i100
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.

    US immigration: President Obama ready to press ahead with long-promised plan to overhaul 'broken system' - but will it get past a Republican-controlled Congress?

    Immigration: Obama's final frontier

    The President is ready to press ahead with the long-promised plan to overhaul America's 'broken system' - but will it get past a Republican-controlled Congress?
    Bill Cosby rape allegations explained: Why are these allegations coming out now? Why didn’t these women come forward earlier? And why has nobody taken legal action?

    Bill Cosby rape allegations explained

    Why are these allegations coming out now? Why has nobody taken legal action? And what happens next for the man once thought of as 'America's Dad'
    Four years of excruciating seizures caused by the 1cm tapeworm found burrowing through a man's brain

    You know that headache you’ve got?

    Four years of excruciating seizures caused by the 1cm tapeworm found burrowing through a man's brain
    Travelling to work by scooter is faster than walking and less sweaty than cycling, so why aren’t we all doing it?

    Scoot commute

    Travelling to work by scooter is faster than walking and less sweaty than cycling, so why aren’t we all doing it?
    Paul Robeson: The story of how an American icon was driven to death to be told in film

    The Paul Robeson story

    How an American icon was driven to death to be told in film
    10 best satellite navigation systems

    Never get lost again: 10 best satellite navigation systems

    Keep your vehicle going in the right direction with a clever device
    Paul Scholes column: England must learn to keep possession and dictate games before they are exposed by the likes of Germany and Brazil

    Paul Scholes column

    England must learn to keep possession and dictate games before they are exposed by the likes of Germany and Brazil
    Michael Dawson: I’ll thank Spurs after we win says defender as he prepares to return with Hull

    Michael Dawson: I’ll thank Spurs after we win

    Hull defender faces his struggling former club on Sunday ready to show what they are missing. But he says he will always be grateful to Tottenham
    Frank Warren column: Dr Wu has big plans for the professionals yet he should stick to the amateur game

    Frank Warren column

    Dr Wu has big plans for the professionals yet he should stick to the amateur game
    Synagogue attack: Fear unites both sides of Jerusalem as minister warns restoring quiet could take 'months'

    Terror unites Jerusalem after synagogue attack

    Rising violence and increased police patrols have left residents of all faiths looking over their shoulders
    Medecins sans Frontieres: The Ebola crisis has them in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa

    'How do you carry on? You have to...'

    The Ebola crisis has Medecins sans Frontieres in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa
    Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

    Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

    Residents in what was Iraq’s safest city fear an increase in jihadist attacks, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Underwater photography competition winners 2014 - in pictures

    'Mysterious and inviting' shot of diver wins photography competition

    Stunning image of cenote in Mexico takes top prize
    Sir John Major: Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting

    Sir John Major hits out at theatres

    Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting
    Kicking Barbie's butt: How the growth of 3D printing enabled me to make an army of custom-made figurines

    Kicking Barbie's butt

    How the growth of 3D printing enabled toy-designer to make an army of custom-made figurines