A History Of Violence

4 stars


1st March 2006

"There's no such thing as monsters," says mild-mannered coffee shop owner Tom Stall to his frightened little daughter. The look on his face tells a different story. We're not talking Orcs, evil wizards and big scary lighthouses here, rather the kind of monster that you read about in the newspaper, the purveyor of those horrible acts that seem inhuman. A History of Violence sees the return of David Cronenberg to the multiplex, riding a wave of critical praise and controversy as usual, and although this may seem to be his most straightforward picture for some time, there's always something sinister bubbling just beneath the surface.

Tom (Viggo Mortensen) is an unassuming man living an undemanding life along with his loving wife Edie (Maria Bello) and their two picturesque kids. One night, a pair of small-time crooks enter Tom's diner with guns-a-plenty, intending to knock off the joint and escape with the contents of the till. However, they didn't reckon on the owner having balls the size of watermelons, and our hero Tom wastes no time in dispatching them in a swift and violent manner. This act of heroism lands him on the national news, bringing him to the attention of Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris), a vicious mobster who hails from Philadelphia and believes Tom to be a gangster named Joey Cusack (or, as Ed pronounces it, "Joey Jusack"). As Tom's life is turned upside down and the King of Men is pushed to breaking point from Carl's harassment, his family uncovers secrets about him that Tom thought he buried long ago.

While A History of Violence is definitely David Cronenberg's most mainstream and accessible film to date, it is still likely to alienate a large section of moviegoers, and not just because of the subject matter. The film is VERY deliberately paced (in other words, it's pretty slow), and leaves many matters unresolved, matters that some filmmakers would consider particularly important. The film raises many questions about the nature of violence and it is the viewer's responsibility to make up his or her own mind in regard to the answers. While there isn't necessarily a gratuitous amount of violence on display, in true Cronenberg fashion there are some particularly shocking and gruesome moments throughout, made all the more shocking by the languid pace of the film. The viewer is almost lulled into a sense of tranquility, before being suddenly and explosively disturbed by gunshots or the sickening thud of a fist connecting with someone's face. This is violence as it happens in the real world; there's no Hollywood-style pratfalls or OTT chest-clutching here.

It'd be rude not to at least mention the infamous sex scenes between Mortensen and Bello. These scenes serve to illustrate the evolution in the relationship between Tom and Edie and in true Cronenberg fashion, they are rather explicit (although there is no wound-fucking this time round). The first is extremely graphic and undeniably arousing (cheerleader outfits rule), whereas the second is actually rather brutal and almost borders on rape (it's reminiscent of the rape scene from Peckinpah's Straw Dogs). Unlike like the violence, the sex is not integral to the story, but feels inline with Tom's progression from mild-mannered coffee store owner to uncaged beast.

Bello and Mortenson both settle into their roles quickly and both react accordingly when their quaint family life is torn to shreds; when Tom realizes his past has come back to haunt him, he struggles to fight inner demons, but when his family learn the truth, its Bello's Edie who feels the pressure the most. Viggo is at ease with both facets of his character, playing the first half of the film with a laid back charm and the second half with a more determined glint in his eye. To be honest, a lot of the time it just looks as though he's happy not to be working with hobbits and CGI beasties, and it's certainly his most accomplished role since his stint in Middle-Earth. Props also to Ed Harris, who makes the most of his little screen time with his instantly iconic, one-eyed gangster. Quite how William Hurt managed to get an Oscar nomination for his ten-minute contribution, however, is beyond me.

A History of Violence stays closely to its graphic novel origins and tells a simple story in an engaging and entertaining fashion. It's made all the more enjoyable thanks to some excellent characters and some pin-sharp dialogue ("How do you fuck that up?" asks a bemused William Hurt's mob boss after his fleet of henchman are wiped out in seconds), plus Cronenberg's typically assured directing. It's a film that feels as if it's poised to explode at any moment, and its brief but unflinching moments of violence are never glorified. Some may find it exploitative or a step too far, others may get a kick out of the often shocking levels of bloodshed, but ultimately, it's a film that lets you make your own decisions - your response toward it may be more telling than you think.

More:  Drama  Thriller
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