I’m not–a fan of Cronenberg. Yes, I admit it, and no I will not turn in my lifetime membership card, I am a film buff through and through, bitch. As the saying goes, “those who don’t remember the past, are doomed to relive it”. The question is, can we ever leave behind a violent past, or are we doomed to relive it? And does violence in any form ever go away? I was not expecting anything in particular with this film, but I was expecting a bad film. Surprisingly though, this is not a bad film. In fact it’s a great film, and at many times an excellent examination of violence as a concept and as an everyday aspect of our lives. Cronenberg’s direction is on the mark. If you’re expecting an action thriller with gunfights, and fist fights, and sex, well–there’s some of that, but it’s rare, honestly. What you will get though is a thorough, engrossing, and tight explanation on violence, and the cyclical nature of it.
Sure it’s stating the obvious, does that not mean we shouldn’t examine it further? Based on the graphic novel by Vince Locke, and John Wagner, “A History of Violence” is, from the get go, a very good neo-noir semi-western with a freaky opening fifteen minutes establishing the utter tension and foreboding dread that will lurk upon this normal small town suburban family. Tom Stall is a man who lives a simple comfortable life with his family, until two men interrupt his small cafe and intend to kill the people within it. Tom defends himself and saves his friends, but on comes the media, and more men enter in to town now accusing Tom of being a mobster named Joey Cusack that escaped years before. Tom has no idea what they’re talking about, but this threatening entourage is not intent on relenting in their insistence upon his identity. One big mix up, or simply a man who thought his past was behind him catching up with him?
Cronenberg and writer Olsen never verify for us if the two men that happen upon this cafe with violent intent were mobsters fishing for the man whom they were looking for, or if they entered on other business and happened to be connected to Harris’ Carl Fogaty, but there’s really no need to verify it for us, because what “A History of Violence” declares is that no good deed can ever go unpunished. The world depicted in “History” is a world so desperate for media coverage and in search of an actual hero, that they’re exposing the hero to his possible past discretions. And with these elusions, we’re introduced to a range of questions toward the plot. Is violence nature or nurture? A manifestation of our bottled up emotions and rage, or just psychosis? Here’s a man like Tom whose experienced violence who has a son who is experiencing violence in school–and has a possible violent streak. Is murder ever justifiable? What’s the price of a good deed in helping our friends?
That and “A History of Violence” also manages to dissect our ability to rationalize past discretions, so that it fits our perception or what is just, and what was needed in such situations. After his confrontation with the further mafia, Cronenberg raises questions toward Tom’s character more and more unfolding this man. He begins to see the mob watching him. Is it paranoia, or just recollected instinct? We’re never sure up until the surprise second half which really makes the film worthy of its praise. The film is filled with excellent performances. Viggo Mortensen has very much of a Gary Cooper quality as this character who begins as this humble soft-spoken family man and is dropped in to violence after violence only to have his personality unfold. Mortensen without a doubt holds his own against the seasoned cast and gives a hell of a performance. Maria Bello is great as the put upon wife in doubt of her husband’s situation, while Ashton Holmes is engrossing as young Jack a bullied young man who also exposes his potential for violence once his dad’s reputation is in doubt in the community.
But the best performances lie within William Hurt who is a mixture of threatening and comical as mob boss Richie Cusack; Ed Harris is utterly frightening, almost the manifestation of demons, and forgotten violent pasts as the one -eyed and scarred Carl Fogarty who rolls in to town intent on weeding out Jack and his “true persona”. “History of Violence” ends on a pure high note, as Cronenberg has finished examining the life of this family, puts them through the ringer, and then leaves them open for a complete restart turning this well off group in to a dysfunctional family whom must now reclaim their bond, and re-assert their roles in their family whether they like it or not. Cronenberg’s film isn’t a perfect one though, not by a long shot. It was never truly explained how Harris’ character arrived at the town so fast after Tom committed his act. Was he there all along? If so, why didn’t he go in for the kill?
Did he send those men? Was he near and got word of mouth? It all seemed to go by so fast without any build-up or dread, and with a ninety minute run time, Cronenberg never really gives us elbow room. “History” is also occasionally very over the top and cheesy with really ridiculous sex scenes that last for well over ten minutes. Though steamy and representative of Bello’s characters dominant presence in the household, the scenes often feel gratuitous and incredibly unnecessary when I thought it over. Felt an awful lot like padding for a film that had a considerable short running time in the end. Despite some cheesy elements, and plot holes, “A History of Violence” is a truly entertaining and engrossing study of violence, family, and our pasts eventually coming back to haunt us. With great performances, and a taut story, this is classic Cronenberg.