Sunday, September 5, 2010

A History of Violence Movie Review

The title of David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence superficially refers to the main character Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen). Alternatively it may refer to the mob men, led by Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris) who come from Philadelphia to drag him back to his old life. Or does Cronenberg, a Canadian raised so close to the United States yet educated from a different historical perspective, have something bigger up his sleeve? Is he thinking of the story in terms of the violent history of the United States – from a violent overthrow of British rule in the 18th century to the invasion of Iraq in 2003? Remember A History of Violence was filmed in 2004 and released the following year.

No, I don’t think Cronenberg had any overt subtext at work criticizing the U.S. Government. But there is an undeniable feel of Americana laid out in the depiction of Tom’s life and family. He’s got a beautiful wife (Maria Bello) and two lovely children. They live in a quaint little farmhouse. He owns his own business – a coffee shop on Main Street. Tom is an Everyman. His home town in rural Indiana could be Anytown, USA. By virtue of these facts, it’s hard to ignore the allegorical implications of Tom’s story.

After a few introductory scenes, the movie kicks off when a couple of out-of-town criminals stop into Stall’s coffee shop at closing time with the intention of robbing the register and, based on the film’s opening scene, killing everyone in it. Tom takes advantage of an opportunity and becomes the hero of the town by easily dispatching both gunmen in what seems like the blink of an eye. Tom seems a natural with a weapon at hand, like some base instinct has kicked in. His heroics draw national news attention and very soon Fogarty and his men are in town harassing poor Tom.

Much credit must be given to Cronenberg and screenwriter Josh Olson for maintaining a level of suspense as to Tom’s true nature right up until the moment he admits his past. When he registers consternation at seeing his face on the news, is it because he knows what it may lead to or because as a modest man he doesn’t want so much attention? What about when he notices a strange car outside his house one night? Does he suspect it’s his old friends from Philly? Even when Fogarty walks into his coffee shop, removes his sunglasses to reveal the distinctive scarring left their by Tom (as Joey Cusack in a former life) himself so many years ago, and then continually refers to Tom as Joey, Tom’s reaction still doesn’t reveal the truth.

This is as much a testament to Mortensen’s incredible performance as it is to director and writer. When Fogarty first walks into Stall’s coffee shop, Mortensen is not playing Tom Stall. He’s playing Joey Cusack pretending to be Tom Stall and desperately hoping he can pull off the charade. Although you would probably never catch it on a first viewing, there is just enough hesitation, just enough semblance of thought passing across Tom’s face to indicate that he’s not who or what he claims. Right in that moment Mortensen hinted at the promise of his great acting ability. Cronenberg’s next film, Eastern Promises, would fulfill that promise.

Violence is depicted as a kind of cancer that, once it has taken hold, spreads uncontrollably. The two criminals who swoop into Stall’s that night bring with them a chain reaction of blood and violence that will alter Tom and his family forever. It doesn’t take long before Tom’s son, Jack (Ashton Holmes), is beating another boy to a pulp at school. Tom and Edie even use sex as an outlet for pent up aggression toward each other. Edie feels betrayed by a man who has lied about who he is while Tom is looking for a release after years of controlling his aggressive nature. This leads to a bruising sex scene on a hardwood staircase.

A History of Violence has distinct film noir elements. The subject matter, for one, is the very basis for much noir of the 1940s and 50s. Part of what defined a lot of the original films noirs was a kind of Everyman caught up in a web of deception and lies, usually ensnared by a femme fatale. That’s not exactly the case here, but in the story of a former criminal on the run and hiding from his past it’s impossible not to think of one of the great examples of classic film noir, the Jacques Tourneur directed Out of the Past, which starred Robert Mitchum as a man trying to make a fresh start with a simple life who is discovered by his old enemy, played by Kirk Douglas.

Late in the film, William Hurt makes a hilarious appearance as Richie Cusack, Tom’s brother. Hurt relishes the opportunity to play a cartoon villain and the final sequence of tremendous violence also contains some of the film’s darkest humor. Cronenberg’s films are typically littered with macabre laughs. Hurt received an Oscar nomination for this role I suspect because it was so much against type. Although he still brings the same low-key stoner sensibility that inflects most of his work, albeit to a role that is much creepier and violent than anything he’d done before.

David Cronenberg is a versatile director. He got his start dealing in a kind of psychological horror. He has written and directed original films, literary adaptations and in this film and Eastern Promises, two of what I consider the best crime films of the decade. He was making feature films for nearly 30 years before A History of Violence, with moderate critical success. Finally he made an excellent film and then followed it up with another.

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