As I’ve grown as a fan of cinema and a pseudo film intellectual I’ve come to develop a fondness and fascination with the handling of violence in film. I feel like the first time I heard the word “violence’ my mom was chastising my dad for allowing me to watch all those Steven Seagal and Jean Claude Van Damme films from the 90s. Any action film was a violent film in my mom’s eyes and rightfully so in most cases. Four year olds shouldn’t be sitting through the (then) Rambo trilogy like I did.
Thankfully all that “violence” didn’t mess me up. I put violence in quotes because all those instance only really count as action sequence in my mind because of the absence of a certain visceral quality and a more nuanced handling of violence as a theme. I should also point to a certain level of desensitization over the years. The genesis of change in my perceiving of violence could be traced to (I think) a Friday night in 2005 when Saving Private Ryan was showing on TV Africa. The lovable man from Forrest Gump looking to kick Nazi ass – Sign me up! The 10 – 20 minutes that followed was an intense transfixing lesson in the harrowing and pure grisly nature of war. For the first time violence had shocked me. It had adopted a nightmarish quality and I was definitely too young.
Nothing has shocked since like Stephen Spielberg vision did. Some have come close but alas I had lost myself on that Normandy beach. I could point to a number of depictions of violence that moved my needle – The layers of brutal escalation found in The Hound’s brawl with Brianne and the primal viciousness accompanying THAT baths sequence in Eastern Promises come to mind – but in the last couple of years my attention has switched to how themes underpinning violence and aggression are handled. This switch could be traced to my first viewing of David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence – certainly my favourite film. Cronenberg’s film carries a deceptive simplicity with a “man has to confront his bad past” surface narrative but there is a lot more at work here handled with compelling nuance.
Violence through the conduit of aggression is an emotion that has proved difficult to fully comprehend but the medium of film has tried over the years to get the root of one of humanities oldest urges. Various films have tried to unravel the core traits that fuel acts of violence and I reckon the more interesting explorations seek to understand violence as a pathology of the human condition whilst narrowing it to individual levels in order to understand the circumstances that lead one down the path of violence. I feel like the former point on our pathological state works in tandem with the latter point in that circumstances play their part in unravelling humanity’s instinctual affinity for aggression and violence. It could be insecurity of greed or repression or fear or pride or sexual tension playing a fundamental part in unlocking and already existing bundle of aggression at one’s core.
On these points consider Dennis Villenueve’s Prisoners and how Hugh Jackman’s steps over the line in pursuit of his kidnapped daughter. To oversimplify things, Prisoners posits that the violence also represents a dark place, a certain abyss in reach of the average individual as evidenced by the arch of the films protagonist, Keller Drover. Just a tweak in fate opens our eyes to it. The first season of Fargo presents another interesting handling of violence. The bumbling fearful insecure Lester Nygard is asked a simple yes or no question that could open the door to a world of violence. He is silent but they do say silence means consent. He is engulfed by acts of violence, some of which he perpetrates himself and we come to realise he thrives in this vehement aura. Later in the series Lester is again met with a simple yes or no question with full awareness of the repercussions. This time the answer is a sure “yes”. Violence follows.
Going back to Cronenberg’s A History of Violence we have violence presented in a number of ways foremost among them as having agency, as having an identity. For Cronenberg violence can be an innate part of one’s identity informed by a specific setting, circumstances and a more cynical gamut. There is also something about how violence begets violence and, more interestingly, finds resolution in further bloodshed. Even the noblest of sentiments appear to require some grounding in violence to truly resonate. Consider the denouement to his 2005 film and the washing of blood. Blood has to be shed first. I dare say there was almost a biblical allusion in play.
Violence has also been accompanied with a level of isolation which could be presented in a literal or figurative. From a literal standpoint consider the primary settings in Gangs of Wasseypur and City of God. These settings are detached from regular society with a Darwinian ethos fuelling a lot of the violence in these ostensive limbos. Filmmakers also pinpoint isolation on a character level when addressing aggression. We have instances where they are established in (geographical) solitude like the protagonist in First Blood or we find characters that are plain loners like Frank Castle or Travis Bickle (get your Google on). On the symbolic spectrum the more recent Alejandro in Sicario is more nuanced encapsulation of aggression and cycles of violence and there is a level of actual isolation (in geography, race, and apparel) as the layers of his character become apparent.
Over the years the way I processed the depictions of violence has developed along with the conceptual handling by filmmakers. Yes we have well-choreographed sequences action which attain a visceral quality but some filmmakers have been more calculating in their handling eruptions of violence. Some directors film scenes of violence with a hectic feel, fast cuts and shaky cam but I feel that’s a cheap compromising way of conveying frantic incoherence all though sometimes effective. I favour longer takes but that’s just me. Some depictions of violence are also presented as sloppy to enforce the instinctive senseless and primal nature of such eruptions. Some shed the frantic tone and come across as quite slow and composed to reflect a composure a certain character may have with acts of aggression.
In the recent Beasts of No Nation, Cary Fugunaga employs a surreal tinge to accompany the frantic nature of his scenes of violence and his perpetrators indulge in acts of aggression as if to satisfy a craving in a manner akin to a drug addict. There is almost a cathartic element at play here which ties in with the pain and loss of the key perpetrators of aggression. You could aslo consider the slow and almost passive eruption of violence at the end of Unforgiven which spoke to a man at ease with this pathology. A lot could be read into how certain filmmakers choose to lay out acts of violence and I quite like Takashi Miike’s projection of excess vis a vis the Yakuza in Ichi the Killer but further exploration of these will be more effective on a proper film-by-film basis which I hope to start engaging in.
Filmmakers like Denis Villenueve have been provocative in their handling of violence. I also admire the grisly playfulness with some poignancy Takashi Miike adopts but we also have the Michael Bays of this world (Pain and Gain) being quite callous in their handling. Some audiences find certain levels of violence exciting because of the degree of sensitization and entertainment value attached but there is a degree of seriousness that should be attached to this complex concept ripe for dissection on the cinematic spectrum. I think next week I will attempt to break down Sicario.