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"Never does it deviate from Cronenberg's primal instincts."
"A fascinating character study, one with no limits."
"Violence is not something that can easily be swept under the carpet."
A History of Violence  

Cast

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 Carney: Peter MacNeill
Leland Jones: Stephen McHattie
Billy Orser: Greg Bryk
Review October 2005

Based on the graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke, David Cronenberg's "A History of Violence" plays with the psychological aspects of violence - the impact of violence on a family and a community. And the long lasting effects violence has when used as a means to an end. The story revolves around Tom Stall, an upstanding small town business owner who is forced into a violent confrontation when a group of criminals arrive at his diner doorstep. By thwarting the robbery and saving the day, Tom is elevated to local hero. But all the publicity surrounding his good deeds brings unwanted attention, including that of some local mobsters who believe Tom to be someone else. A compelling thriller, "A History of Violence" is comprised of two storylines, the first of which is much stronger than the last. Shrouded in small town charm, the textured performances by Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, and Ed Harris give the film an earthy and eerie sensibility. But never does it deviate from Cronenberg's primal instincts.

Tom Stall and his wife, Edie, live the simple life. In a small town in Indiana, they run a quaint little diner while raising their two children, Jack and Sarah. In fact, everything feels as comfortable as Mayberry until one day, their quiet existence changes when a group of hoodlums enter their diner before closing, pull out guns, and threaten one of Tom's employees. The thugs do not seem interested in taking money from the register, but rather some sort of violent retribution. And rather than sit back and become a victim, Tom takes action into his own hands. Disarming one of the men in a nanosecond, he injures himself, but not before killing both in an instant. A local hero, Tom's heroic deeds are publicized on newspapers and television stations all across the country. But Tom seems quite uncomfortable with his newfound fame, especially after a man with facial scars arrives in town and starts asking questions.

The man is Carl Fogarty, who along with a group of other well-dressed men, begin to question Tom's identity. Is he Joey Cusack, a young gangster from Philadelphia presumed to be dead? Does he have a dark secret? A hidden and violent past? Fogarty seems to think so, to the point of stalking Tom and the family. Although concerned, Tom is puzzled by the accusations. And with the help of local law enforcement, he and his family try and cope with the unwanted attention and the threats. But soon, it becomes overwhelming. And they are forced to confront their relationships with one another, their relationships with others, and the issues that come to surface as a result of a violent past, present, and future.

Shocking deformities, metamorphoses, and mental decay. These are characteristics so often found in films by David Cronenberg, an auteur with a penchant for the perverse. In 1975's "Shivers," we watched as parasites in an apartment community turned victims into sex-crazed maniacs. Then, in "Rabid," a unique strain of rabies reduced its human hosts into murderous animals. Later, Cronenberg's "Videodrome" mutated humans with tumors and all kinds of media. And the horrific remake of "The Fly" witnessed Seth Brundle lose body parts while morphing into a grotesque housefly. More recently, "Spider" had Ralph Fiennes portray a man who slowly suffers from paranoia and mental decay. You see a pattern? Now comes "A History of Violence," a film that has mainstream appeal because of its casting and narrative approach, but still echoes with unmistakable Cronenberg-isms. The identity dilemma or duel reality, the suppressed desires, the visible deformities, and the deterioration into primeval behavior.

Of most significance is the way Cronenberg depicts the Stalls changing in the face of violence. Following the initial act, Tom pulls back and becomes an introvert, unwilling to discuss his heroic deeds. Edie changes from playfully masculine to vulnerably distraught. And then there's Jack, who transforms from passive to aggressive, from bullied to the bully. Each has an adverse reaction (with the exception of Sarah - a plot device?) to which Cronenberg fearlessly explores. This exploration involves raw emotional exchanges, heavy fisted skirmishes, and dark sexual encounters. Most certainly, it is a fascinating character study, one with no limits. And because of the trust factor between actor and director, a more complete exploration of character is to be had.

And speaking of character exploration, one of the most successful ingredients in the film is the way in which the characters are portrayed. Simple and uncomplicated, the actors understand the nuance of every day folk. Here, Viggo Mortensen and Maria Bello play a believable small town couple, who have loved each other for 20 years or more and still find ways to rekindle the passion, even after the truth settles in. And son Jack, played by newcomer Ashton Holmes, first seems uncomplicated. But upon his father's heroism, transforms in an understandably shocking way. Last, but not least, there's Carl Fogarty, played creepily by Ed Harris. Surprisingly, this role is the first in which Harris has played a gangster. And there's no question, he's menacing. Harris brings such restrained force and power to the character that you're just waiting for a backhand.

Like so many films these days, "A History of Violence" was based off a graphic novel. From the Paradox Press, the same publishers as "Road to Perdition," the film was adapted to screen by Josh Olson. But unlike "Perdition," the problem with "A History of Violence" is that it doesn't have a continuous, self-contained story. "Violence" is fractured into two distinct pieces - the first concludes after Tom's defense of his family and the second, where Tom goes back to Philadelphia to visit his estranged brother, comes across as an epilogue rather than an extension of the main arc. This departure, switching locales from small town to big city, is disruptive to the nature of the film, especially when it showcases the one weak point in the casting - William Hurt's Richie Cusack. With an Amish like mug, shifty eyes, and a varying inflection, Hurt creates one of the more unique looking and sounding cinematic gangsters. But one so outlandish that it will have audiences thinking silly instead of sinister.

Undeniably, violence is an unfortunate and unavoidable part of human existence. And the film does a good job at raising numerous questions: Is violence ever justified? Does violence promote more violence? Is there any reprieve? Certainly, it is an unattractive option and one that, in spite of best efforts to forget, can come back to haunt many years later. "A History of Violence" is adept at depicting the root cause of violence and questioning its nature. But sadly, it falls short when actually confronting the effects. Rather than discuss or vent the consequences, the characters resort to sex, silence, and more violence to return to normalcy. They lose their objectivity and react irrationally. It's not a pretty picture, but then again, violence is not something that can easily be swept under the carpet.



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