“A History of Violence” Review
December 8, 2011 4 Comments
A History of Violence (2005)
Since David Cronenberg’s ‘A Dangerous Method’ (2011) is coming to the UK’s cinemas February 2012, I thought I would review one of my favourites of this director’s films – ‘A History of Violence’. Cronenberg excels himself in this film, portraying violence at its very raw.
The film’s plot is straightforward. Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) is an ordinary, law-abiding family man who runs his own diner in a small town in the US. However, his calm daily routine changes when he involuntarily becomes a local hero in the community after protecting his diner’s employees from some vicious gun men. From then on, his family is stalked by the Irish-American Mob who are convinced that Tom Stall is, in fact, Joey Cusack, a man from Philadelphia with a violent past. His wife, Eddie (Maria Bello), his son Jack (Ashton Holmes), and his young daughter all feel overwhelmed by the changes. After a shooting incident, whereby Tom kills one of the mob guys, Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris), Tom finally confesses that he was indeed Joey in the past, but is not anymore. Later, Tom receives a call from his brother, Richie Cusack (William Hurt) telling him to come to Philadelphia to see him. Tom does just this, and after a confrontation with his brother, kills him. The ending, depicting Tom coming home from Philadelphia to find his family at the dinner table, is very thought-provoking because, although his children are seemingly prepared to forgive him, it is unclear whether his wife is able to accept him into her life again.
The film is about many things, but it particularly well explores the theme of a man’s duality: how far a man is prepared to forsake one of his personalities, so that another can emerge fully? However, the film is not about multiple-personality disorder or schizophrenia, as some claim. Tom Stall is a man who has decided to turn his life around, having a supposed bad upbringing. He is a man on a run from his dark haunting past. One very convincing interpretation of this movie is that Tom is very remorseful regarding any acts of violence he unjustly committed in his past. As the film’s ending shows, ‘A History of Violence’ is also a movie about forgiveness, and how far one is prepared to forgive oneself and others for past actions.
The film’s opening sequence is remarkable. It portrays two violent and ruthless men, seemingly relaxed and unconcern, after committing their violent deeds in a nearby store. Then, there is a shocking scene of a little girl’s murder. Although the camera work and sound are very good here, the scene’s meaning is somehow lost if one knows the event sequence to follow. It seems that this scene’s main purpose is to both introduce the audience to the film’s violent genre, and emphasize the combat skills of the main character after he later confronts the same gunmen in his own store. The implicit assumption here is that no one could have had the strength and skill of disarming two such skilled and violent men single-handedly, no one, apart from a man with a long history of violence.
There are 5 major events of violent nature in this film (the opening sequence’s horrific scenes of violence, the defense actions committed by Tom in his diner, Jack’s fight with his classmate, the scene of violence in front of Tom’s house and the final violent scene between Tom and his brother Richie). However, it is the quality of these scenes rather than their quantity that make them so mesmerizing to watch. The acts of violence depicted are very realistic, with the camera not afraid to show the worst, while at the same time being swift.
Coming from the director of ‘Crash’ (1996), the sex scenes are expected to be nicely executed in this movie and, indeed, they are. In ‘A History of Violence’ sex is portrayed as either passionate or forceful or both, with the camera not lingering too long for the audience to take the panorama in. One of the most memorable scenes is the heated sex, bordering rape, between Tom and Eddie on the wooden stairs at their home. Even here, violence is present as Eddie slaps Tom, and both of them getting bruised on the stairs.
The little details and the overall content of the dialogue throughout the film makes this movie stand out even more, making it intelligent and intoxicating at the same time. In one scene, we see Tom arriving to his work in the morning, picking up litter along the way. The psychology behind his movements is evident: Tom is not just an ordinary resident in this small town: he is the one who truly cares about his community and its image. Then, we find Tom being amused and surprised by the comments, containing references of violence, thrown to him by his employee/friend. Tom shows the normal response of an average man, and, at this point, the audience cannot fully comprehend his reactions as they are still unaware of Tom’s criminal past and how far he tries to conceal his matter-of-fact attitude upon hearing those comments. The references are about a girl who used to stick forks in her friend, but whom she later married. Here, the film is all about unintentional sarcasm as audience finds out later that it is Tom’s wife who married a man with a violent past.
The “false alarm” scene in the movie is also nicely played out, and, actually, contains the movie’s main idea. This is the scene whereby Tom, upon seeing the Irish Mobs’ car driving away from his diner in the direction of his home, frantically calls his wife, telling her to get the rifle and be ready, while he sets for home on foot. This scene is full of stress, and very cleverly lets the audience into Tom’s paranoid, violence-driven set of mind. Tom’s reaction here is striking as he immediately thinks the worst. There is no clue that the Mob’s car really is set for Tom’s home, and yet Tom is full of panic. His reaction is even more bewildering to watch given his family’s unconcern demeanor.
The movie’s cast is good. Viggo Mortensen does an excellent job portraying Tom Stall. Even when the audience finds out about this man’s ‘history of violence’, Tom, nevertheless, commands respect and sympathy. Harrison Ford was originally considered for the role, but turned it down. This is actually a blessing than a curse. Though it is plausible that Ford, known for such films as ‘The Fugitive’ (1993), ‘Presumed Innocent’ (1990) and ‘Witness’ (1985), would have made a perfect law abiding citizen fighting his violent past, if he were in the lead role, ‘A History of Violence’ would have been viewed as just another sequel to one of his movies, rather than something truly original. Maria Bello, playing Tom’s wife, although at times rather annoying with her over-use of the word “baby”, is still rather convincing in her role overall, especially, in the movie’s distressing scenes. Ed Harris playing Carl Fogarty, an Irish-American gangster, is also very realistic in his villain portrayal. However, it is William Hurt, playing Tom’s brother, Richie, who tops them all. Hurt acts brilliantly, portraying the egoistic and evil brother with uncanny realism. If Hurt’s character was developed more in the film, it wouldn’t have been surprising to see him made ‘a top 50 villains of all time’ list – he is that good. The whole concept of “brother” present in the script is also no coincidence: the idea may be that one good “twin” kills another, an “evil” one, but the stress here is also on the fact that Tom could have ended up exactly as Richie, i.e. cruel and ruthless, leading a gangster lifestyle, but, having a choice, Tom opted for a better life.
On the downside, even knowing that most Cronenberg’s films are not the longest in the world e.g. ‘The Fly’ (1986) lasts just under 95 minutes, and ‘Spider’ (2002) – 98 minutes, ‘A History of Violence’ could have had more than it does: perhaps more hints could have been offered as to Tom’s previous life and the true extent to which he has undergone a change from being a bad guy to a good one. In a nutshell, ‘A History of Violence‘ does leave impression that one saw only one fraction of a story worthy to be told, although, probably, the most interesting part.
Although the film and the graphic novel it is based on (written by Wagner and Locke), are fiction, one other possible criticism can be directed at a wholly unrealistic image of the main character. Tom has a history of violence, and yet, we do not really see the real Joey, the violent man in Tom, at all. Tom only resorts to violence in the movie in “self-defense” situations. It would have been more realistic (and dramatic), if we are to see more vivid instances of Joey appearing once in awhile through Tom. In this way, the film echoes the wholly unrealistic portrayal of the main character in the novel of Feodor Dostoevesky ‘Crime and Punishment’. There, the main protagonist, being for most of his life a good son and an exemplary student, suddenly, wholly unimaginably and inexplicably, commits horrific murders.
What makes ‘A History of Violence’ stand out among other films in this genre is probably its simple plot, and a masterful direction and acting, which make the characters appear multi-dimensional and complex, and the story intelligent, thought-provoking and gripping. In that way, ‘A History of Violence’ has almost an 80s movie feel to it with its minimal special effects and generally good acting. Overall, ‘A History of Violence’ is a gripping and entertaining thriller, among David Cronenberg’s very best. 9/10