Lessons of Darkness

Lessons of Darkness

A History of Violence examines one man’s attempt to protect his family from the murderers drifting into his small Indiana town. Good Night, and Good Luck presents a portrait of Senator Joseph McCarthy to a generation that knows him only as the front end of an “ism.”


Women and children everywhere live with men who are killers. A slight exaggeration; they live in fact with modest, decent men, who killed at some point in the past as soldiers. My father was one of them. He had fought in Patton’s infantry in World War II; and though that service was a source of pride to him, the experience of it was something he kept very quiet. From hanging around when he was with his veterans’ group, I learned (under a child’s cloak of invisibility) that some men separate themselves from war by talking a lot about their soldiering, and some do it by talking little. In neither case, though, are they likely to own up to killing. Someone else must have pulled the trigger.

Our books and movies and television shows are heavily populated by those others: the heroes who did what they had to do. Every nation adores them, although few countries do it so piously as the United States. We Americans believe, as an article of faith, that every front door opens onto a frontier, where the law can’t protect women and children. Liberty Valance is always at large in our imaginations, and a big, suffering man is always around to shoot him.

But what if that defender were not a solitary gunman? What if he were instead the quiet, loving dad who had killed in his other life? How would we feel if that man, today, proved to be good at slaughter? These are the exaggerations–slight, of course–that bring shivering life to David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence.

At the film’s core are Tom and Edie Stall (Viggo Mortensen and Maria Bello), a couple who love each other so intensely, and are so tender toward their kids, that you ache for every moment of their doomed happiness. As a brief yet unendurable prologue shows you, two drifters are making their way cross-country, robbing and killing with a leisurely, irritable indifference. Soon the back roads must lead them to the Stalls’ Indiana town. An autumn chill has started to settle on the landscape, which you might sense is readying itself for death. For a long time, though, the Stalls innocently believe that turning leaves are just signs of a new school year.

Their teenage son currently faces nothing worse than a locker-room bully; their little daughter sometimes worries about monsters, but only the kind that lurk in closets. Edie practices law, manages the house and flirts with her husband; and Tom, day by day, goes mildly about the business of running a Main Street diner–chatting with his handful of customers, joshing with the grill man, tidying up the two pieces of litter that are the sum of the town’s sinfulness. Every flash of the little gold cross around Tom’s neck testifies to his simple goodness, and to an imminent crucifixion.

When Cronenberg can at last wring no more foreboding out of these scenes of ordinary life, the murderers stalk into the cafe. What happens next turns the gentle paterfamilias into “American hero Tom Stall” (so the newscasters say). “I just did what anybody would do,” mutters Tom, mouthing the formula with rather less conviction than is customary. You can see from the way he flips through TV channels that he is impatient for this episode to end–which it won’t, of course. With the inevitability of a Kafka story, and with a comparably grotesque and funny precision of detail, new killers are soon replacing the old ones at Tom’s counter stools. These fresh murderers are more numerous than the first batch, more jeering and expert. Worse still, they insist they know Tom.

I’m not sure how much of this story comes straight from the source (a graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke), how much was invented by screenwriter Josh Olson and how much is pure Cronenberg; but I know that A History of Violence develops with the singleness of purpose, and the rigor, of a mathematical demonstration, one that begins with a commonly accepted truth and ends with brains spattered across the floor. The style (as in Crash) is distanced, composed and lingering at first, until it gains speed and force with the story’s momentum. The action is both balanced and outrageous. Edie Stall, in happier days, plays dress-up for Tom, but later she is stripped bare; young Jack (Ashton Holmes) starts out by using his self-deprecating wit as a defense, but later he turns into an attack dog of sarcasm. Even the performers who are given scope to misbehave–Ed Harris and William Hurt, playing wise guys from one of hell’s more laughable circles–fit neatly into the film’s symmetrical equations.

Tom, of course, is the character who goes through the biggest reversal, which is all the more astonishing for being effected through Viggo Mortensen’s body. When first seen, Mortensen’s Tom is the Honest Abe Lincoln of coffee shops; the flesh clings so tightly to his bones, you’d think there’d be no room to conceal anything. He speaks with a patience and simplicity that are just this side of aw-shucks; and his eyes, though set far, far back from you, seem amused rather than distant. Later, when this man begins to change, Cronenberg bets the movie on Mortensen’s ability to bring depth to a face that you thought was all surface. The camera tends to stay fixed on him, in close-up; and with little more than a curl of the left side of his mouth, Mortensen seems to sneer, snarl, gasp in despair and prepare to weep, all in the space of a few seconds.

And he does it without talking. Although there’s a lot of good, sharp dialogue in A History of Violence, many of the strongest scenes are wordless, as if the movie had emerged from silence and sought to return to it as the natural state. In retrospect, you can see this trait, too, as a matter of balance. At the beginning of this fable of male bloodiness, and of the women and children who live with it, a little girl stands speechless before the man who will kill her. At the end of the story, it’s Tom’s daughter who is silent as she admits him back into the home, setting a plate at dinner for the man who has killed.

She has no need to talk, there being no alternative to her father’s return; and he’s got nothing he can say for himself.

The question that forever haunts the corridors of The Nation–“Will this movie help to educate the masses?”–echoes again with the release of Good Night, and Good Luck. This time, whatever else you may think of the picture, the answer is clearly yes.

The film’s subject, as you must know by now, is the decision by Edward R. Murrow and Fred Friendly of CBS News to air programs criticizing Senator Joe McCarthy. For director George Clooney (who also co-wrote the screenplay with Grant Heslov), the key choice in converting this history into drama was to use cleaned-up archival footage of McCarthy, rather than hire an actor to impersonate him. The aesthetic consequence is a black-and-white film, crisply shot by Robert Elswit. The political consequence will be the exposure of McCarthy, at full strength, to one or maybe two generations who have known him only as the front end of an “ism.”

We’ll see what comes of the shock. Meanwhile, to talk about the movie:

Half a dozen characters move around the average scene in Good Night, and Good Luck, talking rapidly over one another while a mobile camera threads its way among them. It looks and sounds a lot like ER. You might imagine, then, that Clooney is making a movie the only way he knows how–though the impression will melt away if you’ve seen his first feature, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, which is both exceptionally good and exceptionally different. For his new picture, Clooney may have adapted a style from his television days, but it’s clearly a choice, made to establish an atmosphere of people working together.

This is perhaps the most pleasant aspect of Good Night, and Good Luck: the fascination with professionals doing their job. The cast is a high-powered lot–it features David Strathairn as Murrow and Clooney as Fred Friendly, in addition to Robert Downey Jr., Patricia Clarkson, Frank Langella and Jeff Daniels–but the ensemble takes precedence. Nobody steals a scene, either in performance or in the script, which acknowledges Murrow as the star of CBS News but shows him surrounded by colleagues at all times, the first among equals. Friendly may literally kneel at his feet to cue his broadcasts, but Murrow does not speak without his producer’s go-ahead tap.

The movie, then, is about a group of news people daring to take a stand. You learn something about the evil they opposed (did I mention the archival footage?) and also about how they did their work and how they justified it. (When challenged by CBS boss William Paley, who complains that a news program has strayed into editorializing, Murrow retorts, “I don’t think there are two equal sides to every story.”) Ultimately, the movie is also about the demise of Murrow’s group, along with other high-minded news organizations. Clooney frames his story with a scene at an awards banquet, where Murrow eloquently denounces the decline of television news.

We come to a less pleasant aspect of Good Night, and Good Luck. The film begins with Murrow making a speech at you; it ends with a resumption of the same speech; and in between it patches in several more public addresses that tell you exactly what you ought to think. There’s so much educating of the masses going on in this movie, or so much bolstering of your opinions, that you eventually long for a little dumb fun, as represented here by an old Person to Person interview between Edward R. Murrow and Liberace. Maybe Clooney understood he was burdening the audience with instruction, which is why he showed his characters drinking and smoking all the time. That’s not period detail–it’s vicarious pleasure.

On a more serious note (since you insist): The picture makes a case against McCarthy as a liar who recklessly accused all sorts of guiltless people of having been communists. The possibility that someone could have been both guiltless and a communist is not much entertained.

But now, having complained of too much education in this movie, I see I’ve faulted it for too little. Before I commit criticism again, I’d better just say that Good Night, and Good Luck makes something timely out of its history lesson. It’s both a crafty little picture and a forthright one–a neat trick–and got this year’s New York Film Festival off to a buzzing start. If that’s not good enough, then I say we deserve Fox News.

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