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
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,
Lord of the Rings" trilogy), a mild
mannered family man in middle-of-nowhere
. 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
: 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
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
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.