A film review by Craig J. Koban
A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE
2005, R, 96 mins.
Tom Stall: Viggo Mortensen / Edie Stall: Maria Bello / Richie Cusack: William Hurt
/ Carl Fogarty: Ed Harris / Jack Stall: Ashton Holmes / Sarah Stall: Heidi Hayes
/ Sheriff Sam Carney: Peter MacNeill / Leland Jones: Stephen McHattie
/ Billy Orser: Greg Bryk
I have found it somewhat difficult to discuss this film in any discernable detail without perhaps subtly revealing some of the secrets of the story. Thus, you may want to consider this review one with potential spoilers.
Contrary to what its title implies - as well as what others may tell you about David Cronenberg’s newest film - A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE is not really preoccupied with violence as its major theme. No, this film is more concerned with the nature of personal identity and coming to grips with the present when the past is hurtling up from behind you. The film has an offbeat and quirky, intricate nature that has punctuated much of Cronenberg’s past work. It facilitates itself rather masterfully for the first two thirds as an intoxicating and involving story of one man accepting who he is and who he was while trying to make a modest life for himself in the present.
Yet, much like FLIGHTPLAN, another recent film going experience that was partially engrossing, A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE lets its first stellar 60 minutes or so get undermined by a third act that is more routine with its action set pieces and less stimulating than the strong character drama that preceded it. Yet, the film’s overall arc works much better as a whole than FLIGHTPLAN's did, and Cronenberg here - as he has with many of his other past works - displays what an underrated master of mood, tone, and quiet suspense he really is.
Cronenberg is a director that I have admired, but have never really had a complete fascination with. He is, to his credit, a visionary talent with a considerable amount of range. Just consider his body of work. His 1996 film CRASH involved people who became sexually stimulated by viewing auto wrecks. His EXISTEZ was another mind-altering screwjob that was kind of creepy and surreal. DEAD RINGERS sure was an peculiar film about twins, both brilliantly played by Jeremy Irons. And, yes, who could ever forget his 1986 film THE FLY, which was a modern reimagining of the classic film of the same name. The latter film had a performance by Jeff Goldblum that was oozing with sinister and eerie power.
Now, having considered the broad cinematic resume of Cronenberg, it was somewhat surprising to see that A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE was a bit more straightforward and linear in terms of its storytelling and narrative than his past idiosyncratic and macabre works. The film, based on a graphic novel, has a definitive story arc that goes through the basic motions and is very sly and simple in construction. Yet, beneath its more mainstream elements lurks Cronenberg's morbid sensibilities which shows that he still has what it takes to pull the carpet from underneath us and treat us to a series of ghastly images and disturbing characters.
Ultimately, despite the fact that the plot is somewhat of a mixed bag, A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE is always mesmerizing as a character and mood piece. Even more crucial is Cronenberg’s insistence on attacking the restraints of what most people see in contemporary films and he cheerfully throws them out the window. Much like in CRASH, Cronenberg does not shy away from certain perverse elements in A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE. This film, like that sexually laced and morose work, has the transcending power to intrigue, polarize and turn people off simultaneously.
The film opens on modest and straightforward footing. We are introduced to a small Indiana town that would could have been called Bedford Falls in another Capra film in another universe, but never mind. The film’s main character, Tom Stall (played by Viggo Mortensen) runs a plain life, to say the least. He lives in a typical piece of small town farm land, has a everyman swagger and congenial charm about him, and runs a small coffee shop by day that makes one mean cup of java. He is the type of man, much like Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey in IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, that is known by all of the townsfolk and is universally revered for his warmth, generosity, and earthy kindness. He’s married to a lawyer named Edie (Maria Bello), has a son, Jack (Ashton Holmes) and a young daughter (Heida Hayes), and is a man of noble pleasures. He has such an All-American Boy Scout sentimentality about him that very few ever bat a suspicious eye at him. Lame clichés aside, he's as American as apple pie.
The opening passages of the film are almost anti-Cronenberg in their execution. They have the feeling of a humble and affable small town drama that seems so miles away from the unsettling and crass imagery that was, for example, in THE FLY. It’s an interesting setup, but just when you think Cronenberg has defied his admirers and devotees, something terrible happens.
One day two tough and vicious criminals make their way into Tom’s diner well after closing time. He politely tells the men that they are closed. The two lowlifes refuse to leave, demand coffee, and then subsequently decide to hold up the diner. They are not, by any definition, weaklings. These are rough, edgy, sadistic men (as an opening scene earlier in the film embellishes) with guns and cruel dispositions. Yet, just when it seems like the crooks are about to make off with the diner’s cash and have their way with the waitress, Tom lashes out and dispatches with the thugs effortlessly, almost too effortlessly for a simple small town dinner owner. Cronenberg films the brief, but kinetic scene like a traditional standoff in a western, but shows the after-effects in grizzly and gruesome detail.
Tom is now widely hailed as a hero by the town and the local media (it’s a bit unbelievable how quickly some of the big network TV broadcasters are able to get wind of the story and send reporters to the scene so quickly). Tom, being the country bumpkin that he is, shrugs it all off unassumingly with his "Aw, shucks" demeanor. He is not one for the spotlight and seems kind of obsessive in his predilection for not wanting to give interviews, nor wanting to have his face show up on TV. If anything, his new status as a hero has placed a sort of unwanted and newfound stress on Tom. He seems oddly concerned in the aftermath of the incident at the diner, kind of like a fugitive that does not want to be seen on the local 6 o’clock news. Is there more to this man than meets the eye?
Well, yes…in ways both large and far reaching. A few days later a group of men enter his diner. They are mean looking like the last two criminals that dared to enter Tom’s establishment, but seem more low-key in their antagonism. Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris) is one of the men that have a keen interest in Tom, especially after seeing him on the news the night before. Carl taunts Tom endlessly and Tom plays off of Carl’s endless verbal jabs. You see, Carl seems to think that Tom Stall is not who he claims to be. Carl believes that Tom is not really a diner owner from Indiana, but rather Joey Cusack, an ex-killer/bounty hunter that worked for his boss in Philadelphia. Tom continues to defy Carl’s advances and pleads that he has no clue of what he is talking about. Yet, things change for Tom when Carl and his mob cronies start to make life miserable for his wife and son.
Soooooo…is Tom Stall really Joey Cossack, or has Carl just made one whopper of a mistake? Cronenberg does an effective job with tantalizing the audience initially with this strange conundrum. Yes, Tom seems to have dispatched with the crooks earlier with a level of assurance, confidence, and stunning precision that would make most Navy Seals blush. However, was he miraculous in his efforts because he is actually an ex-killer with mob ties or was he just a desperate man running on big hits of adrenaline? On these levels, A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE has a layered level of involvedness and investment in its characters and generates a strong audience buy-in.
However, I think Cronenberg makes a bit of a misstep with revealing the secret of Tom’s life a too quickly, not too mention that he provides closure to his conflict with Carl a somewhat prematurely. I think that the film could have further developed the mystery of Tom’s past to greater avail and have teased the audiences’ sensibilities and interest in his character longer than it did. When his true persona and life are leaked out, the film sort of loses its forward momentum and instead trades off its captivating character study for elements that seem, more or less, standard of a typical action/revenge picture. It’s odd that such an unconventional voice in film like Cronenberg felt the need to finish the final act of the film in a painfully conventional manner. The ending of the film itself was kind inspired, though, as it was sort of paradoxically brought an ambiguous level of closure to the film. You gain the sense that characters will settle back down to normal…or will they?
Despite my misgivings with the overall narrative of the film, A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE works best as a character drama, and it contains some truly inspired performances. Viggo Mortenson has always been an actor that I have appreciated for his way of downplaying his roles for a disquieting level of power and charisma, much like Harrison Ford. Mortenson does something really well in the film – he provides two glimpses of a divergent personality and he does so with effortless and fluent ease. He is, on one facet, a simple man that only wants to keep his family and life secure, but on another plane he hints slyly at a darker, sinister, and cunning man of action and edge. His appropriately dials down his performance, much like he does with his past roles, and is able to convey more with less. Mario Bello and Ed Harris also carve out memorable supporting roles; Bello as a grieving wife figure that may or may not trust her husband for who he is, and Harris for playing an icy and carnivorous villain with impeccable vileness. William Hurt also shows up later in a cameo that just may be his most brilliant and wickedly droll work in some time.
Then there is the film’s violence itself, which is sort of a secondary, but nonetheless integral element of the story that strangely holds it together. A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE is a parable about how violence both characterizes man and changes man, perhaps into something you'd never wanted to be and now want to run away from. Violence is both a metaphorical theme (man tries to escape his violent past that personified who he was) and a literal part of the film’s visceral content.
Cronenberg has never shunned on-screen mayhem and gore in his films, and it’s hear aplenty in A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE. However, the sadistic level of violence in the film serves an ultimate purpose. It is not glorified and flamboyantly stylized violence that acts as filler to entice the audience and thrill them. The violence in this film has a stark immediacy and is fast and brutal in its details, but it also is most concerned with showing the after-effects of the carnage. The violence in this film is not uplifting. It sickens and disturbs and is quick and maddening with its speed and consequences. More or less, this is how real bloodshed would actually occur and appear.
There is a lot to admire in A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE. It’s a penetrating and emotional character piece with powerful performances by the cast, not to mention that the careful auteur in Cronenberg knows intuitively how to mount and sell tension and suspense with quiet moments and silence. This is a film that is impressive in terms of the talent surrounding it and the confidence and authority that were imbedded in it. The film is an undeniable tense and gripping 90 minutes that is barbaric (this is a violent film that, along with some frank and graphic sexuality, is very appropriately rated R). The film also questions its barbarism and asks the viewer to analyze the righteousness of a Rambo-esque solution to all problems. This is a shrewd social commentary that has a few too many rough edges to be hailed as a masterstroke work for Cronenberg, but it incontestably pushes the envelope and our buttons in ways that only he knows how. A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE is incendiary and subversive and has a sick and cynical veracity about it, which may be a mirror into our own cruel world…perhaps more than we care to admit.