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

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