Title: A History of Violence
Play time: 1h 36min
Director: David Cronenberg
Screenwriters: John Wagner
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, Ed Harris
The reactions to David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence, after its engagements at the Cannes and Toronto Film Festivals, were all but unanimous in their acclaim, and the assertion that this was one of the filmmaker’s most unabashedly populist efforts to date. Though I cheerfully concur with the former, I’m not going anywhere near the latter. If anything, in fact, I would wager that Cronenberg’s masterful symphony of contradiction won’t win many fans among the stereotypical multiplex crowd — it’s too volatile, too strange, too willing to bend and change and reinvent itself. I wonder: does the notion of this film being somehow “populist” derive from the fact that it has a narrative? Has that become the test?
A History of Violence is 100% Original Movie & Straightforward
To be fair, there are considerably fewer of Cronenberg’s characteristic perversions on display here. No virtual reality game controllers made of human flesh; no twin gynecologists; no automobile accident fetishes. Maybe that’s what people meant. But even with his reputation as a somewhat freakish naughty boy, the director has always been a master of narrative, and A History of Violence simply pushes that to the forefront. It tells a great story, the kind of story I fall for hard, perhaps the reason I watched every single episode of The X-Files. It’s brooding, menacing, uncertain, and when the certainty finally comes, it comes at you with incredible force.
The film immediately sends two genres hurtling toward each other, opening with a chilling and brutal scene of mass murder before cutting to our protagonist — Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) — who lives a quiet, seemingly rich family life, running a diner in a quaint and peaceful small town. He has a beautiful wife (Maria Bello), a teenage son named Jack (Ashton Holmes), and a young daughter; when we first see them, the girl has woken up from a nightmare, and the way the three of them gather around her bed, trying to reassure her in their own, equally loving ways, is lovely. We get a nice sense of their family dynamic: sedate, mutually respectful, with an undercurrent of dry humor; over breakfast, Jack tells his dad that they’re playing baseball in gym today, so he “can look forward to sucking hard in right field.”
As most of the movie’s plot-based surprises come in the first half, it’s better to go in without watching the trailer, which gives away the farm, or reading the rest of this review. (I’m serious. Spoilers follow.) Tom commits a very violent, very skillfully executed self-defense murder at his diner, and he’s immediately hailed on national television as an American hero. Soon after that, some mysterious men led by the dark-suited, badly scarred Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris) come into town looking for Tom, inexplicably calling him “Joey,” and menacing his family.
The Wise Side of History of Violence
On one level, A History of Violence is a movie about whether or not a person can change — truly change, not just reform. Is there a reset button? Can you leave behind who you were and start over? Is it fair to the people you start over with? The film can be read as answering that question with a decisive “probably not, but you’re welcome to try.”
But there’s more going on here than merely that. Cronenberg casts doubt on the identity of not only Tom Stall, but of everyone in the film; it’s no coincidence, after all, that Tom’s plight is paralleled with Jack’s ongoing confrontation with a violent school bully, an extended face-off that begins with charged words and ends in a stunning explosion of violence. It’s certainly not arbitrary that his wife’s shock at the revelation turns to complicity, then disgust, then violent, unhinged sex. And consider the heartbreaking banality (!) of the final scene, and what that last gesture actually signifies.
So, yes. The facade of the film does its damnedest to set up a collision of worlds: the “nice town” with “nice folks” coming face-to-face with people with black suits, black Cadillacs, and a disturbing penchant for violence. Cronenberg the auteur certainly goes nuts, starting a serial killer movie, proceeding with a quiet family drama, and interrupting it with a hard-boiled gangster movie (and God bless him for bringing it to Philly). But the implication, decisively, is that these people aren’t different — only their environments are. Tom Stall’s little town may be “nicer” than Joey’s Philadelphia, but that’s as far as it goes. The impulses and motivations that control its denizens are directly parallel, and you wonder, at the end of the film, if anything has happened at all.
A High Quality Film Production
Of course, A History of Violence is a beautiful production, crisply shot in cool blues and greys (at least until the climax) by Cronenberg’s long-time collaborator Peter Suschitzky, with a haunting and understated score by Howard Shore. There is a finely modulated lead performance by Viggo Mortensen, convincing every step of the way, and a good one by Maria Bello, whose character is less central to the plot, but absolutely indispensable to the film’s themes and ultimate impact. It’s a great, significant work by one of today’s masters, on the same plane with the rest of his work notwithstanding the mass-media marketing push.