2005 TIFF Update #2: "Bang! Bang!"

Commentary by James Berardinelli
Friday, September 9, 2005

The first day of the Toronto International Film Festival is an odd time because it doesn't feel like things are underway yet. It's this way every year. Although there are scattered screenings Thursday night and during the day Friday, things don't shift into high gear until Friday night. Likewise, a significant portion of the press corps stays away until mid-day Friday. That makes Thursday and Friday a time of low-stress. No endless lines or packed theaters. But the relaxation lasts only 24 hours. Once dinner is finished on Friday, the frenzy begins. The queues outside the Roy Thompson Hall (where the biggest movies have their splashy premieres) dwarf those at Space Mountain.

Good weather enhances the film festival experience. Even though movie-goers are spending a lot of time indoors, going from theater-to-theater can require a walk of several blocks, a taxi ride, or a trip using Toronto's top class subway system. (In past years, I rode the subway as many as four times per day. This year, with my hotel within spitting distance of the main venue for press screenings, I may not use it at all.) Sodden clothing can turn a two-hour movie into a soggy experience. Fortunately, the weatherman appears ready to cooperate, much as he did during each of the previous two years. (Although some early-morning storms made one wonder.)

There is a common belief among non-festival-goers that the fare here is ethereal and intellectual. And, while it's true that you won't find any Star Wars or Harry Potter sequels, there are plenty of opportunities to experience visceral cinema. A couple of early entries in 2005 use kinetic titles to herald their subject matter.

One of the most anticipated films here is A History of Violence, primarily because it's from one of Canada's favorite children, David Cronenberg. Although made using American money and officially listed as a "USA" movie, that hasn't dampened interest or enthusiasm for this project. Put it alongside Atom Egoyan's Where the Truth Lies for the film with the most early buzz.

Cronenberg, the director of such films as Dead Ringers and The Fly, has a reputation for being a little "out there." It may come as a surprise, therefore, to learn that his latest, A History of Violence, is almost mainstream in the way it tells a linear story and curtails freaky images. The movie, which is at its heart a meditation upon the meaning of identity, is not perfect. Although there's little wrong with the first two-thirds, A History of Violence slides onto a tangential path during its final act, and this misstep reduces the production's overall effectiveness. Nevertheless, there's a lot to admire here.

Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) is a model citizen, ideal father, and loving husband. His two children, Jack (Ashton Holmes) and Sarah (Heidi Hayes), trust him, and his wife, Edie (Maria Bello), adores him. The fun hasn't gone out of their marriage, as Edie proves when she dons a cheerleader outfit to seduce Tom. One evening, while Tom is working behind the counter at his diner, two thugs come in with rape and robbery on their minds. After a brief struggle, Tom gets the gun away from one of the robbers and uses it to dispatch both intruders. He is hailed as a hero, and there is blanket news coverage. And it's on TV that Carl Fogaty (Ed Harris) sees a familiar face. Based on the evidence of his eyes, the man who calls himself Tom Stall is actually Joey Cusack, an ex-killer from Philadelphia. So, with henchmen in tow, Carl heads for the town of Millbrook, Indiana.

Central to the film's success is the uncertainty about Tom's past. When confronted by Carl, he not only denies being Joey, but claims to have never been in Philadelphia. Neither the script nor Viggo Mortensen gives us a clue whether Tom and Joey are the same person, or whether Tom is the victim of an unfortunate coincidence. As the Stalls must deal with the new, dangerous presence in their life, they must grapple with questions of identity. What makes each of us who we are? Is it our face, or something deep within? Cronenberg weaves a spell for over a hour, but he proves unable to sustain it for the entire running length. The need for a conventional resolution pulls him off course during the movie's final third.

Mortensen finds the perfect pitch for Tom. In this performance, we see a good, simple man who cares about his family and community. But we also see hints of something else - a darker, more decisive personality. During the film's first hour, I changed my mind several times about whether Tom was Joey, and a lot of that had to do with the way Mortensen plays the role. Opposite him, Maria Bello is a firecracker, the kind of actress who draws the camera's attention. Not since The Cooler has she been given this juicy and demanding a part. And, as the villain, Ed Harris is nothing short of despicable.

A History of Violence can be seen as a thriller, but in many ways it works best during its quieter moments. As the title indicates, this is not a sedate art film. It contains moments of sharp, vicious mayhem and there is a body count. But the strength of the movie lies in its psychological complexity and depth. Left unresolved is the perhaps unanswerable question about whether the nature and identity of a person are fixed or fluid.

Turning the page, we come to another film with plenty of sex, nudity, and violence. (Although no one in this movie shows quite as much as Maria Bello in A History of Violence. We now know, for example, that she's not a natural blond.) Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is the breezy directorial debut of Lethal Weapon screenwriter Shane Black. Black knows film noir inside and out, because he uses the basic template here. He jazzes things up by employing an aware and self-deprecating narrator and toying with many of the clichés. Yet, although the tone is never more than semi-serious, and Black's tongue is never far from his cheek, we grow to like the characters. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang offers a few thrills, a surprise or two, and several wholehearted laughs. It gives off the same kind of vibe as Get Shorty.

The film is narrated by Robert Downey Jr.'s Harry Lockhart, and he makes it apparent from the start that he's not a generic disembodied voice. He knows he's talking to a movie audience, and he doesn't hesitate to pause or rewind the film when he forgets something or makes a mistake. At one point, he comments, "This is bad narrating," then wonders if it's okay for him to use a certain profanity. Harry is a petty thief in New York City who breaks into a casting call in an attempt to escape the police and ends up being invited to Los Angeles as the "next big discovery" of a hot-shot producer (Larry Miller). Once there, he is teamed with a private investigator named "Gay Perry" (Val Kilmer), who is supposed to teach him how to become a better actor by exposing him to real-life detective situations. Harry gets more than he bargained for. On the good side, he is reunited with his high school sweetheart, an actress wannabe named Harmony (Michelle Monaghan). On the bad side, he discovers two bodies in less than 24 hours - one of which resurfaces (after being disposed of) in his hotel room bathroom. Someone thinks Harry knows something he shouldn't and he/she is determined to shut him up.

The noir plot is standard. Black knows it. We know it. And Black knows that we know it. So he spices things up by including all of the expected contrivances but never buying into them wholeheartedly. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang has fun with the conventions of the genre by simultaneously embracing them and mocking them. Despite all of the laughs, however, it's not a full-fledged parody. Then again, considering how close many noir B-movies come to self-parody, it can be difficult to identify the line of demarcation.

Black's screenplay doesn't insult the audience's intelligence by slowing down to let the confused viewer catch up. At times, the plot careens forward so quickly, it seems like a scene is missing. But the rapid-fire pace is useful, because it keeps us involved. And, despite its irreverent tone, the narration avoids becoming a distraction. Significant chunks of time go by without Harry's omnipresent voice offering comments or observations. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang doesn't offer much that's groundbreaking, but it gets the balance between comedy and pulp thrillers right, and the result is an entertaining, albeit eclectic and eccentric, mélange.

© 2005 James Berardinelli

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