It’s always risky to ascribe broad-stroke national sensibilities to works of popular culture, but in the case of Canada, whether we’re talking about the rigorous dream-novels of Robertson Davies or the royal Canadians who reinvented sketch comedy with SCTV, our neighbors to the north frequently exhibit a serene yet exacting moral skepticism—one that makes Americans seem jumpy, amoral, and gullible by comparison. Two new films further this argument: Atom Egoyan’s Where the Truth Lies and David Cronenberg’s much-praised A History of Violence, which together represent the latest Canadian take on American movie genres and American morality. Egoyan, a Canadian resident since his teens, when he began making movies at the University of Toronto, uses Where the Truth Lies to craft a period murder-mystery about an American comedy duo obviously based on Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Toronto native Cronenberg sets his cerebral revenge flick in semi-rural Indiana, where a genial coffee-shop owner (Viggo Mortensen) snaps into action-hero mode in a manner that shocks his neighbors and disrupts his happy home life forever.
Where the Truth Lies is about the cruddy, soul-sapping side of fifties American showbiz. The film’s Martin and Lewis stand-ins—wacky comic Lanny Morris (a gamely mugging Kevin Bacon) and suave crooner Vince Collins (Colin Firth playing Dino as a Brit, if such a thing can be imagined)—are a smash nightclub act with a dirty secret: A young woman was found dead in the entertainers’ hotel suite, and for decades they escaped blame until a persistent, alluring reporter (Alison Lohman) comes poking around with a million-dollar book contract as motive to dig up the truth. Egoyan jumps back and forth between the fifties (complete with scenes of Morris and Collins doing their wild-and-crazy act, which like so many such re-creations consists of club audiences in the film being far more amused than we are) and the seventies, when Lohman conducts her book interviews. The time shifts are awkward, and Egoyan displays little of the deftness of characterization he evinced in such movies as Exotica (1994) and The Sweet Hereafter (1997); the result is a cold scold of a movie.
Cronenberg’s A History of Violence, by contrast, is blood-warm and invigorating. Mortensen’s Tom Stall has a nice small-town life, a smart if timid son (Ashton Holmes), and one hotsy wife in Maria Bello. Such near-perfection is shattered when Philly gangsters, led by Ed Harris, arrive from Tom’s past and pull him back in to a life he’d hoped to leave behind. I love the way Cronenberg, while maintaining a strong subtext about how you cannot expiate your sins (among other things, this is an interestingly irreligious heartland movie), doesn’t shy away from staging a few crackerjack action scenes. I’d like to hear from some women about the sole scene I didn’t buy—Bello getting angry, then super-turned-on when she learns about her calm Tom’s tough-guy origins—but otherwise, A History of Violence is a remarkably convincing examination of heroism, hero worship, and the seductive allure of villainy.
Both Egoyan and Cronenberg suggest in these films that there is something ingrained in the American character that craves power and control far beyond what people should reasonably expect. The comedy guys Morris and Collins believe that their celebrity status places them beyond the law, that any transgression can be covered up; the thugs who track down Mortensen’s Tom believe anyone can be brought to heel. In these films, power doesn’t corrupt so much as give corrupters a sense of purpose—of entitlement, even. That’s what I mean about a Canadian spin: These are not the sorts of themes American movies (with exceptions such as Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven) usually grapple with, and whether the result is artistic success (the Cronenberg) or ambitious failure (the Egoyan), the vivid dramatization of ideas is something to be thankful for.