In A History of Violence, the contrast between dark and light provides a potent visual approach to the material. Production designer Carol Spier creates a warm, gingerbread atmosphere for the town where nothing ever happens and contrasts it with a dark mantle where all the bad guys reside. The Stalls are dressed in beige and earthy tones and are threatened by men in black. Cinematographer Peter Suschitzky subtly conveys openness in one environment while creating another that’s claustrophobic and bathed in shadow. Still, it’s the almost subliminal use of sound that proves most disquieting in the piece. The effect is chilling, unsettling and quite unforgettable.Where the Truth Lies is quite simply an elegantly assured piece of filmmaking with cinematographer Paul Sarossy adopting a gliding camera style that moves with the grace one associates with such modern masters as Vittorio Storaro. The film has a truly dynamic musical score by Mychael Danna. The music swells to make counterpoints and ebbs to provide oblique, amusing commentary. It is the type of vivid, textured work that rises to the rare station of providing another shade or character for a film.What do Midnight Cowboy, The Apartment, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Titanic and American Beauty have in common?The easy answer is that all five films received a best picture Oscar; but that’s not the unity I was seeking. These particular choice examples of Americana were all directed and, in several cases, written by men raised and often schooled in their art in another country. There is in each instance a subtle presence of an outsider’s eye, and while it would be foolish to suggest foreign-born filmmakers are more apt to hit a universal nerve when addressing quintessentially US stories, it is fair to say that these and other international artists have been responsible for some of the greatest films made in the Hollywood system.American cinema is unequalled in its assimilation of foreign artists and craftsmen, whether they have segued from other industries or simply dropped in for a single notable occasion. It’s not unique to the United States, as one can point to Brazilian Fernando Meirelles’ immersion into the ultra British The Constant Gardener as another cross-cultural fertilization. Nonetheless, it happens with far greater regularity.No one melds better into the American scene than Canadians, whether they happen to be America’s sweetheart Mary Pickford, Lincoln portrayer Raymond Massey, or Jim Carrey, not to mention such behind-the-camera folk as Alan Dwan, Norman Jewison and James Cameron. It still remains a bit of a shock that English Canada’s two most preeminent voices—David Cronenberg and Atom Egoyan—have simultaneously taken on uniquely American stories. Cronenberg addresses a singular type of aggression in A History of Violence while his compatriot has the cult of celebrity as the core of his Where the Truth Lies.Objectively, Cronenberg would appear to have the easier task not simply in terms of subject but in several other key artistic regards. The project and screenplay were brought to him and he was able to shoot the Indiana-set yarn close to his Toronto home with a crew he’s employed for more than two decades. The tale revolves around Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen), the seemingly levelheaded owner of a diner in small town Millbrook. However, when two pathological killers show up close to closing time one evening and brandish guns, he responds heroically in the defense of his patrons and staff.His act of impulsive courage makes him a momentary media celebrity, though he brushes it aside with the sort of “aw shucks” attitude of Gary Cooper or Jimmy Stewart. And just as the spotlight appears to be dimming, three men sit down at the lunch counter and insist he’s in reality a former hit man for the Philly mob named Joey Cusack. Their conviction is unalterable and the ringleader has a disturbing point when he asks: “how’d you get so good at killing?”The film’s title and that of the source material is double-edged in its evocation of both a general and specific meaning. That duality underlines Stall’s new status as either a victim of mistaken identity or someone whose tawdry past has finally caught up with him. The irony if the latter is true (and even if it’s not) is that a selfless act, albeit brutal and irrevocable, appears to have spawned an even more volatile situation, physically and emotionally.The contrast between dark and light provides a potent visual approach to the material. Production designer Carol Spier creates a warm, gingerbread atmosphere for the town where nothing ever happens and contrasts it with a dark mantle where all the bad guys reside. The Stalls are dressed in beige and earthy tones and are threatened by men in black. British cinematographer Peter Suschitzky, ASC subtly conveys openness in one environment while creating another that’s claustrophobic and bathed in shadow.Still it’s the almost subliminal use of sound that proves most disquieting in the piece. There’s hollowness in the room tone that adds weight to words and every move and ambient noise feels as if it’s ricocheting lethally and apt to make everyone a victim of friendly fire. The effect is chilling, unsettling and quite unforgettable.A more obvious mystery is at the center of Where the Truth Lies. In 1957, Lanny Morris (Kevin Bacon) and Vince Collins (Colin Firth) were the biggest names in show business. Their combination of music, jokes and patter was uniquely appealing. But on the eve of opening a new hotel in Atlantic City, a young woman is discovered drowned in the bathtub of their suite and their partnership and popularity quickly evaporates. Though they were absolved of the death, the incident has hung over the two men and 15 years later an ambitious reporter (Alison Lohman) receives a contract to write a book that at least has Collins’ cooperation. She believes that the death and the breakup of the act are integrally related and that she has the key to unlocking the Pandora’s box.On the surface, the film wanders through a labyrinth in which even the clear passageways have obscured paths and surprising diversions. It is quite simply an elegantly assured piece of filmmaking with cinematographer Paul Sarossy adopting a gliding camera style that moves with the grace one associates with such modern masters as Vittorio Storaro, ASC. Without pressing the point, the part of the story set in the 1950s evokes the gloss of a Ross Hunter production and when it switches to the ’70s, has the funk and authority of Hal Ashby or Paul Mazursky. Finally, it is absolutely contemporary, viewing the indulgence of bad behavior and the excesses of drugs and sex with a candor that’s shocking and wholly appropriate.Egoyan adopted the novel that is the basis of his film and captures perhaps better than anyone ever has the way stars are besieged and beloved by the public and how they behave after the curtain goes down. Or, to be blunt, how they fail to measure up to a public persona and act out of desperation and fear to be something they are not. It’s obvious he has no love for the people that prey on them whether they are ruthlessly ambitious careerists, sycophantic pariahs on payroll or dyed-in-the-wool blackmailers in pursuit of a quick buck. It is a variant on the Rashomon theme but in this instance all perspectives have validity. In addition to a trio of brilliant performances, Where the Truth Lies has a truly dynamic musical score by Mychael Danna. Reminiscent of Bernard Herrmann’s work for Hitchcock, the music swells to make counterpoints and ebbs to provide oblique, amusing commentary. It is the type of vivid, textured work that rises to the rare station of providing another shade or character for a film.Both films rank among the true achievements in careers that have produced lasting and provocative movies. The respective feats seem all the more amazing when one
realizes they emerge from a society where sordid criminal sagas occur about once a decade and there is no star system unless you play hockey. Perhaps the mystery in both instances is how an artist fixes on something and sees through it with the precision of a laser beam.
Written by Len Klady