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a history of violence

review by rob gonsalves

David Cronenberg

Josh Olson
based on the graphic novel by
John Wagner
Vince Locke

Chris Bender
David Cronenberg
J.C. Spink

Peter Suschitzky

Howard Shore

Ronald Sanders


Viggo Mortensen (Tom Stall)
Maria Bello
(Edie Stall)
William Hurt
(Richie Cusack)
Ed Harris
(Carl Fogarty)
Ashton Holmes
(Jack Stall)
Heidi Hayes
(Sarah Stall)
Stephen McHattie
(Leland Jones)
Greg Bryk
(Billy Orser)
Peter MacNeill
(Sheriff Sam Carney)

mpaa rating: R
running time: 96m
u.s. release: 9/24/03
video availability: TBA
official website

other david cronenberg films
reviewed on this website:

- crash
- eXistenZ

In A History of Violence, brutality hurts and has sickening consequences in a way it hasn't in any American movie since Unforgiven. Men expire inconveniently, gurgling face-down in their own blood on a diner floor; they get pounded in the face until the nose effectively disappears in a smear of cartilage and ripped skin. The movie, however, sets up situations in which we want, need, the killing and maiming to happen. The tension builds in a slow boil, then ignites furiously when we're not quite ready for it. Man is a violent species, and director David Cronenberg, who has spent thirty years studying that species in such films as Dead Ringers and The Fly, implicates his audience and himself in the violence, as he did in 1982's grotesque Videodrome. The theme of the movie could be: Killing feels good until it's over -- then what do you do?

The mystery of the film, adapted loosely from a mediocre 1997 graphic novel by John Wagner (writer) and Vince Locke (artist), is whether small-town diner owner Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) -- an aw-shucks guy to all appearances -- is hiding dark and bloody secrets from his past. One night, a couple of thieves and thrill-killers invade Tom's diner. (Aside: Suzanne Vega's song of the same name -- I am waiting at the counter/For the man to pour the coffee -- will take on inadvertent macabre humor after this film.) Tom dispatches them with suspicious ease, is crowned a local media hero, and attracts the attention of shadowy men led by a scarred Ed Harris (dropping his usual intensity and coming across all the more frightening), who seems convinced that Tom is actually a man named Joey Cusack, from back in Philly. We assume that Joey, whoever he is, wasn't a kindly city hot-dog vendor or puppy breeder.

Cronenberg isn't terribly interested in artificial mysteries, though. Nor is he all that impressed with the novel's emphasis on mob connections. What he's after is simple: Is the human machine hard-wired for violence, and what happens when the machine tries to rewire itself? Tom, played with effortless precision in moments both cruel and gentle by Mortensen, is a classic movie figure -- the man capable of ghastly carnage who has chosen a peaceful path until circumstances force his hand. In Cronenberg's hands, this neo-western becomes a meditation on the essence of all those movies. Family life (civilization) is nurturing; killing is exciting. But switch "killing" with "going to strip clubs" or the disreputable bachelor pastime of your choice, and you have a metaphor for how a man changes -- or doesn't -- when he opts for the credibility of wife and children.

A great deal of the movie's impact depends not on Viggo Mortensen but on Maria Bello, who should be ready to take over the planet any day now. She plays Tom's wife Edie, a lawyer who, I think, was attracted to safe homespun Tom and his small-town life and moved away from city stress (her voice still has an urban cadence; Tom has an Indiana drawl that eventually slides into something more threatening and razory). Edie finds Tom exciting, going so far as to recreate the innocent devirginizing neither of them really had, fantasizing being a cheerleader in bed with her quarterback boyfriend. The first of the movie's sex scenes is warm and playful (unusual for Cronenberg); the second, a thrashing and bruising event on a stairwell after Edie discovers the truth about Tom, is considerably uglier, more disturbing, and -- this being a Cronenberg film -- more erotic. Bello performs in both scenes, and everything in between, with deeply committed delicacy. We believe in her love and her revulsion.

A History of Violence is of a piece with Cronenberg's other work, though it seems to offer easier catharsis (but doesn't really). A confrontation late in the movie between Tom and a bad man played with cool, self-amused malevolence by William Hurt is played out almost as drawing-room comedy, with the violence no longer painful because we're now in a world where life is meaningless. Ultimately, we find Tom at the dinner table with his son -- who seems infected with his father's virus of swift retributive force -- and his little daughter and Edie, and volumes of the unspoken pass between man and wife. That's the movie's true mystery, and the one Cronenberg prefers to leave us with: Then what do you do?

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