Straight off: This film is not for the squeamish or those with tender sensibilities. That said, David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence is anything but gratuitously violent (see Domino for that), but it is most assuredly violent. And Cronenberg being Cronenberg, he doesn’t flinch from it, or prettify it — nor does he revel in it. The director records it rather matter-of-factly, and that is part of what makes this an at-least near-great film in a year so far lacking in very much in the way of near-greatness, and even near-competence.
A History of Violence is also disarmingly simple — and brilliantly compact. At 96 minutes, it’s a trim piece of work that wastes nothing in telling its story and making its point. The screenplay by Josh Olson (previously writer-director of movies most people have never heard of) is adapted from the graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke. From it, Cronenberg (whose producer status indicates a large hand in the writing) has fashioned a story that’s as simple and compelling as it is thought provoking.
Viggo Mortensen stars as Tom Stall, the apparently perfect family man with the perfect family in a perfect small town. Unfortunately, when a pair of serial killers happens to pick on his diner as a source of revenue and sadistic fun, he finds himself forced to turn into a ruthless killer — something he does perhaps too well to be the mild-mannered owner of a diner. The resulting publicity brings a horribly scarred gangster, Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris), to town. Fogarty is convinced that Tom is really a professional killer from Philadelphia, Joey Cusack, and he wants to take him back to his crime-lord brother, Richie Cusack (William Hurt in possibly the performance of his career). Tom denies it, but as events pile on top of events, this becomes an impossibility and Tom is forced to face up to his own past by becoming it.
That’s the merest surface reading of the story line in a movie that’s more about character, environment and sociology than it is about plot. For that matter, this reading doesn’t even take into account key subplots concerning Tom’s son (Ashton Holmes) and wife (Maria Bello), both of which are essential to the narrative whole.
The key to the film is perhaps its very title, which refers not just to Tom’s personal history of violence, but also to our collective history with the subject. It could also refer to Cronenberg’s own impressive body of work, of which this new film is more of a piece than its relatively mainstream quality might at first suggest.
Every act of violence we see committed by Tom or his family seems understandable, even justifiable; we as viewers accept these acts and possibly agree with them, or even enjoy them. Which doesn’t change the fact that it is all violence, however we choose to look at it.
Cronenberg is hardly the first filmmaker to make this point. Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Black Cat made it 70-plus years ago. More recently, it was at the center of Sam Peckinpah’s much-misunderstood Straw Dogs.
Where Cronenberg departs from these previous films is not only in making us recognize the violence inherent in ourselves, but making it inescapable. By the end of the film, he virtually normalizes it in one of the most disturbing — yet understandable and oh-so-simple — images of the family unit I’ve ever seen. (It’s not surprising that some audience members at the showing I attended greeted this final scene with mutterings and outright bafflement.)
On the surface, this film may seem just a violent gangster yarn, but Cronenberg has opened the door to a train of thought that becomes more disturbing the longer you consider it. Rated R for strong, brutal violence, graphic sexuality, nudity, language and some drug use.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke