A History Of Violence
New Line Records, 2005
REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 11/17/2005
This film represents composer/conductor Howard Shore's 11th collaboration with director David Cronenberg. This review represents my first try ever at reviewing the original score associated with a film. (May the force be with us both.)
Scores can be a challenge in terms of approachability. An original soundtrack typically incorporates songs, be they original numbers created for the film, or existing music borrowed from a variety of sources. By contrast, the score is pure music, those often unobtrusive background textures that exist solely to add emotional shading and emphasis to the film itself.
I found after a couple of tries that I simply couldn't gain access to this music without benefit of having seen the movie. Which now leaves me with the challenge of reviewing the music without slipping into the trap of reviewing the movie itself.
In terms of plot, the movie's trajectory is fairly simple. Bad guys wander into small town looking for an easy mark. Bad guys enter a small town diner where the owner (Viggo Mortensen), a quiet family man with a beautiful wife, teenage son and young daughter, works the counter. Bad guys make trouble, and exit in body bags. Family man is declared a hero, gets his face plastered across the media, more trouble arrives, and a series of complications and hard choices ensue.
Shore's score is equally uncluttered and intense. He sticks with a handful of orchestral instruments that present a series of individual notes and occasional bold themes, focusing on French horn and alto flute. The utter simplicity of tracks like the opening "Motel" isn't impressive by itself, but in context it's obvious how the single, sustained, waxing and waning note emphasizes the viewer's sense that something is very wrong as, on screen, the audience meets two lowlifes in the process of making a leisurely departure from a roadside motel that is slowly revealed to have been the scene of a bloodbath.
Moving through the story, fuller compositions like "Tom" and "Cheerleader" offer introductory themes that have a timeless, almost iconic feel to them. This makes good sense once you read the liner notes and understand Cronenberg imagined this film as a classic Western tale of a lone good man's battle against evil. The sense of foreboding in numbers like "The Road" and "Nice Gate" does equal justice to the mood the director is going for in these scenes, and amply demonstrates why Shore is a popular choice in his field.
The challenge for the reviewer remains, though. If I hadn't seen the movie, I would have a tough time passing judgment on whether this music achieved its purpose. Without the film to provide context, it feels well-crafted but lacks a reason for existing. Taken with the film, it's difficult to judge, since I think Cronenberg could have made a much better movie if he'd cut a total of perhaps four minutes from a handful of scenes where his cinema verite approach to violence and sex pushes the R rating envelope to the breaking point. As it is, I left the theater queasy and shaking my head at the very good movie he just missed making.
In fairness to Howard Shore, though, I'll try to stick to the music, and there I have nothing but positives to offer. The score to A History Of Violence, while largely unobtrusive, serves the purposes of the film and its director quite effectively.