The Dualistic Philosophy of David Cronenberg

A man sexually inserts a videotape into his stomach. A man’s head explodes into large bloody pieces. A man tears off a piece of himself and discovers he has become part insect. A man is convinced by a gigantic talking bug-typewriter to murder his wife.

The films of David Cronenberg, including “Videodrome,” “Scanners,” “The Fly,” and “Naked Lunch,” burst with scathingly visceral imagery; and yet the man himself is a quiet and introspective intellectual with a sly, engaging charm.

Cronenberg embodied this fascinating dichotomy in an interview with The Crimson, where he rhapsodized on his new movie “A History of Violence,” his horror-filled past, and the differences between his native Canada and the United States.

Cronenberg’s film is the story of Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen), who, in a pulse-pounding action set-piece, violently defends his all-American diner and family from psychotic drifters. The wake of his actions—resulting in national publicity—dredges up some evil men from Tom’s past, among them the terrifying Carl (Ed Harris) and hypnotic Richie (William Hurt). They know Tom Stall as Joey Cusack, a murderer from Philadelphia who owes them big and mysteriously vanished prior to Stall’s arrival in small-town Americana.

Who is Stall really? What must he do to protect himself and his family? Can the family ever go back to their seemingly ideal existence? Can a man change so completely as to kill the man he once was?

Cronenberg, a born-and-bred Canadian, looks at these questions without the didacticism and detachment of Lars Von Trier’s “Dogville,” Warner Herzog’s “Grizzly Man,” or Wim Wender’s upcoming “Don’t Come Knocking”—all recent examinations of America’s culture of violence and masculinity from foreign-born directors.

“I think it’s more a meditation or discussion of those subjects and others, rather than, let’s say, a statement,” says Cronenberg. This ideology gets to the heart of the confusion within the director’s style; he explains that “a statement would suggest that I had some solutions to some problems, which I don’t have.”

Cronenberg’s desire to meditate on these problems demanded a special cast. Casting is, he realizes, “a very difficult process, a kind of black art,” because of the inherent subjectivity of an actor’s suitability for a role. The casting was a hurdle made even more difficult by the idiosyncratic nature of the project and the director.

According to Cronenberg, it is particularly tough to cast a group of actors that are meant to resemble a close-knit family: “When you think about it, for example, I cast Viggo, and now I become like a dating service or a marriage counselor: I have to find him a wife.”

To fill out the cast, he assumes yet another role: “then I become a breeding consultant because now I have to find children.”

Mortensen used Cronenberg’s trust to create one of the more indelible portraits of the year, as a man haunted by America’s dichotomy of peaceful coexistence and righteous anger. It is a combination beautifully portrayed in the two painfully intimate sex scenes between Mortensen and on-screen wife Maria Bello, which take place before and after the question of his identity is raised.

Coming off of “Lord of the Rings” and “Hildago,” Mortensen was not the obvious choice for such a role, but Cronenberg realized, “This movie, in a weird way, is much more like the films he normally does, which is character acting.”

“Yes, he’s got the charisma and looks of a leading man,” he continues. “But his actions and attitudes and his willingness to disappear into a role are much more like a character actor.”

Cronenberg was turned onto Mortensen by his performance in “A Walk on the Moon,” in which he plays a traveling salesman having an affair with a lonely housewife. The director feels that “in that [film], he did something that you don’t see in most of his other movies: he was very sweet, gentle, tender, compassionate, and of course, sexy, which I knew I needed Tom Stall to have.”

Although “Violence” is based on an obscure graphic novel, Cronenberg did not read it until far into production. Cronenberg says that “when I read it, I realized we had gone so far in a very specific direction away from the novel that I felt it was irrelevant.”

The direction Cronenberg ultimately chose illuminates his own contradictions as much as America’s. All his movies are trapped between the violence of the images and the characters and the intellectual discussion of his chosen theme. His 1996 film “Crash,” for example, about strangers coming together over a car crash fetish is violent and sordid, but also an earnest examination of the place machines hold in our lives.

In the beginning of his career, the balance tilted more heavily toward violence and sexuality, leading Cronenberg to pick up nicknames like “The King of Venereal Horror.” His response: “that’s a very small Kingdom. I’d rather be the King of something bigger.”

Although he seems to feel somewhat maligned by the pigeonholing implied by such a nomenclature, Cronenberg comprehends that this reputation is heavily of his own making. He says that “the truth is that I deserve what I get because when I was a kid, making movies, I called myself things like the ‘Baron of Blood.’”

The Baron’s directorial signature has certainly stayed consistent. The lingering shot on the drifter’s shotgunned head near the opening of “A History of Violence” is an unmistakably Cronenberg moment.

And yet it is not the violence but his directorial professionalism that brings interesting actors into some of the best roles of their careers. Cronenberg notes that while studio execs don’t always understand him, “in terms of actors, for example, my reputation is very good.”

The King of Venereal Horror is aware of the extraordinary carnage throughout his films, but “nothing happens in the frame by accident.” The visceral quality of his images strike at one part of the mind, but it is only this opening that allows him to dually engage his audience with the meaning behind his stories.

Cronenberg repeatedly stresses that he is not interested in horrific imagery for its own sake; looking back, Cronenberg insists that “obviously, anybody who has seen my movies, including those early movies, knows that I was always after bigger game than that.” And luckily for his audiences, Cronenberg is now skilled enough to balance his two strains in a manner that makes him one of the world’s most unique and interesting hunters.

—Staff writer Scoop A. Wasserstein can be reached at wasserst@fas.harvard.edu.