A History of Violence

Tom Stall is a nice guy. He owns a coffee shop in a small Indiana town; has a beautiful intelligent wife and two nice kids.  He’s a valued member of the community. But like all of us, Tom has a past and judging from the way he dispatches a couple of thugs trying to rob his business, his is more interesting than most.

Word of the incident gets out and Tom becomes a celebrity. It seems harmless at first. After all, what’s wrong with a little notoriety? But Tom is hesitant. He doesn’t talk to reporters and he watches the news with a kind of resigned dread. 

The reports attract the attention of Richie Cusack, a Philiadelphia mobster who thinks he recognizes Tom and has a score to settle. Cusack sends his creepiest henchman, Carl Fogarty to bring Tom east. 

That’s the very simple setup to David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence. There are two stories here. One is of Tom, played by a terrific Viggo Mortensen, dealing with the physical threat to himself and his family by the only avenue open to him–violence. The other story is the psychological effect of this violence on his family. I won’t go into details about Tom’s past (If you want a spoiler, look at IMDB’s page for the film) but I will say that he has tried to walk away from it; to kill the person he was. And, in the beginning of the film, it looks as if he has. But when the aforementioned situation exposes him, he pays the price for never having confided the truth to his wife. (Maria Bello) Naturally, she feels betrayed. They have a teenage son, who feels the anger and violence that runs unsuspected through his family and doesn’t understand why. He tries to suppress it. And when he’s pushed too far and it emerges, the results are devastating.

Cronenberg does a terrific job intermingling these two narratives. To do so, he takes the counterintuitive strategy of emphasizing the tonal differences in the stories rather than homogenizing them. The violence in this movie very much betrays the graphic novel origin of the story. Tom is a hyper-competent killer whose skills return full-fledged after two decades of dormancy. The fights are fast, brutal and very graphic. The other story though, is subtle and told in the faces of the talented cast. And where the comic book plot gets resolved in a definitive and bloody fashion, this second story remains ambiguous when the final frame has flickered off the screen.

The director takes a great script, written by Josh Olsen, and makes a visually stunning film by using realistic lighting, long tracking shots that build suspense by slowly revealing information, and a leisurely pace that introduces you to the characters and foreshadows coming events at the same time. I don’t believe I’ve seen any Cronenberg films before, since he usually makes horror films. I hope he strays out of that genre more in the future.

The performances are great. Mortensen portrays a basically decent man. You can see the vestiges of the former self and he uses them at need, but most of the time, they aren’t in control. It’s a wonderful understated performance. Maria Bello, as Edie, his wife, leaves behind her exotic beauty and plays a smart professional woman with only conventional beauty. She does a great job here, portraying her character’s pain at discovering that her husband isn’t the man she thought. Ashton Holmes plays Jack, the son, who struggles with his hidden nature. It’s a great performance by a promising young actor. Ed Harris and William Hurt are menacing and creepy as the villains.

A lot of people complain that, too often, violence is portrayed in movies as having no consequences. Those people should see A History of Violence. It is about those consequences.

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