David Cronenberg has been an iconic director in the horror genre for close to three decades now, and is generally considered to be one of the more intellectual directors in the genre. More often than not, his films present the destruction/reconstruction of the human body in a highly sexualized manner. In “Rabid”, he presented zombification as an STD; in “The Fly” it was perfecting the human form through mutation. Cronenberg’s films are always in-your-face, and are typically filled with gruesome and gooey special effects for good measure.
With “A History of Violence,” Cronenberg takes a very subtle and brooding approach to the subject of violence. The film introduces us to Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen, “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy), a mild mannered family man in middle-of-nowhere Indiana . It’s one of those one-street towns where even the good guys know the sheriff by his first name. Tom is the picture of wholesome middle America : he owns a diner, has a loving wife, two kids and everyone in town likes him. Nothing much happens in this town and everyone likes it that way.
One night, the town’s tranquility is disrupted when two lowlifes storm into Tom’s diner, waving guns and threatening rape and murder. But before the thugs know what’s happening, Tom has jumped the counter, disarmed one robber, and pumped both full of lead. Tom does this with such ruthless efficiency that we can’t help but think that those moves were practiced rather than reactionary. Tom is praised as a hero and much to his dismay his face is plastered all over the news.
In the aftermath of Tom’s heroics, three greasy looking men, led by the disfigured Fogarty (an intense Ed Harris), enter Tom’s diner and starts calling him Joey. They claim to know Tom, or Joey, from some unsavory dealings in Philadelphia where they insist he return with them. Tom shoos them off, insisting it’s a case of mistaken identity. But the men don’t take ‘No’ for an answer, and begin harassing Tom and his family. Who is Joey, and what is his connection to Tom? Is Tom really who he says he is, and that this is all a terrible case of mistaken identity?
How the fallout from Tom’s seemingly justified act of violence affects him and, more importantly his family, is the focus of “A History of Violence”, but Cronenberg presents it squarely from left field. It says something about a film when the sex is as shocking as the violence, but this is Cronenberg at work, drawing parallels between the two acts and even merging them. But unlike some of his past films, Cronenberg seems to be holding back with “A History of Violence”, shunning grotesquery for more subversive methods. To be sure, when the violence comes, it is quite brutal and graphic, but the message is subtle, yet incisively obvious.
The above characterizes the film as a whole. It’s all about subtext and sabotage. Taken at face value, “A History of Violence” is just another middle of the road actioner about a man standing up for what’s right. Dig deeper and you see that the web of righteousness that Cronenberg has been weaving is not so wholesome after all. What exactly is Tom defending? Is he standing up for his family or for his own life? Does he want to save his marriage or the life he’s created for himself?
These questions come to the surface as more of Tom’s past, including a smooth Philly gangster named Richie (a droll William Hurt), come to the forefront. Cronenberg is careful not to hand out answers, but rather to only pose questions and imply direction, culminating in a brilliantly ambiguous yet thought-provoking closing scene. Cronenberg’s greatest success is the creation of a believable family in the Stalls. This is thanks in no small part to excellent performances from Mortensen as Tom, Maria Bello (“Payback”) as his steadfast wife Edie, and Ashton Holmes as their impressionable teenage son Jack. Because we feel as comfortable with them as a family as they seem to with each other, we empathize with everything that happens to them.
The ensemble is completed by Harris as the menacing Fogarty and Hurt as the dapper Richie. Playing Fogarty like a drunken version of his character in “Glengarry Glen Ross,” Harris exudes cruel, calculating menace, effectively exploiting both his gnashing East Coast accent and his facial scars to create a character that sends chills down your spine, even if all he’s doing is describing his coffee. Hurt, on the other hand, is a study in controlled manipulation, hiding his gun behind a smart suit and elegantly manicured beard.
Yet, for all the narrative wizardry that Cronenberg displays, his third act is a misstep because it resorts to a standard action shoot ‘em up finale. It is handled well, but seems out of place next to the moody setup, and it’s this uneven conclusion that holds the movie back. But even if the presentation is out of place, the third act does go a long way toward answering the film’s underlying question about a person’s latent propensity for violence, and if violent people can ever really change. Much like Wes Craven and “Red Eye,” “A History of Violence” features a notoriously malevolent director putting his spin on the mainstream and turning in his best work in nearly a decade.
David Cronenberg (director) / John Wagner, Vince Locke (graphic novel), Josh Olson (screenplay)
CAST: Viggo Mortensen …. Tom Stall
Maria Bello …. Edie Stall
Ed Harris …. Carl Fogarty
William Hurt …. Richie Cusack
Ashton Holmes …. Jack Stall