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A History of Violence

Writing about any film that has some sort of ‘twist’, or device that the plot operates around without giving anything away is difficult, so I’m giving advance warning that this review contains a few spoilers.

When considering renting A History of Violence on DVD recently, I was aware that there have been conflicting reviews of the movie since it’s debut on cinema screens several months ago. For fans it is an understated classic, for doubters a slow film that doesn’t do much. Having taken the plunge, it is with no amount of splinters that I sit on the fence and say I totally understand both positions.

A History of Violence is based on the graphic novel of the same name and tells the story of Tom Stall, the all round middle-American good guy. He is the mild-mannered, family man who has the prerequisite pretty wife, children and white picket fence. Stall runs a café/restaurant in the small town that he calls home and knows everyone by name. This façade of normality is disturbed when two vicious criminals attempt to rob the café and kill the people inside, including Stall. In a moment of heroism, Stall disarms and kills both criminals, taking a knife through the foot as a result.
This then is a classic story of the average guy fighting back against the rising violence plaguing the country, a modern hero. Or not. Soon after Tom’s release from hospital and return to the café, a man in a sharp black suit with only one eye enters the café, a pair of toughies as entourage in tow. This man, who introduces himself as Carl Fogarty, calls Tom by the name ‘Joey’ and claims to know him. So begins the real story of A History of Violence.

Whenever you hear the name David Cronenberg and the word mainstream in the same sentence, ‘is not’ almost certainly comes between them. However, A History of Violence is that rarest of movies where Cronenberg not only approaches as close to the mainstream as one imagines he dares, but also manages to tone down the worst excesses of his talent. In doing so he produces a remarkably understated movie that induces fine performances from the cast as a whole, and Viggo Mortensen in particular. Unfortunately the film is too slow. Having a movie that is both understated and slow to boil is one thing, but a movie that does not boil at all is an entirely different matter.

A History of Violence starts suggestively, spending a small amount of time on the two criminals, fomenting in the audience’s mind the brutality and casual violence these men are capable of. In turn we are then given time to process the idyllic life Tom Stall lives. These two lifestyles are juxtaposed to show, seemingly, how far removed they are from one another but as the film progresses, the plot, via the robbery at the café, brings them closer and closer together. As the title suggests, violence is a major theme within the movie and one that is dealt with intelligently. The incident of violence at the café raises many questions about modern society’s treatment of violence; the media eager for a gun-ho hero rather the scared family man Stall appears to be, and the cost of the violence to the town despite Tom being favoured with a hero’s greeting. Violence is not glamorised or dealt with in a familiar, comfortable tone. Indeed the violence is very much uncomfortable as it slowly seeps into the previously safe mundanity of the town, exemplified by the brutal, execution-style death of the second criminal, and creating painful problems for the Stall family.

Throughout the movie, the Stall’s changing family dynamic is set front and centre both for reaction to the events occurring around them, and their effect on the family. To begin with Cronenberg offers the stereotypical quaint yet playful family image of the loving parents and respectful children. It is a stereotype only in the basic construction though, both Tom and wife Edie are shown to be convincingly well rounded characters – Maria Bello talking and acting dirty in a cheerleader uniform during the opening few minutes of the movie is always going to score points with the male audience – whilst the journey of Tom’s teenage son Jack serves as a microcosm for the whole movie. Jack’s progression is particularly fascinating to watch during the film, as his attitude and demeanour alter in response to the changing faces of his father. Bello and Mortensen play very well off each other, with both handling their character’s conflicting emotions about the plot revelations subtly but effectively. Ed Harris conveys the necessary ‘bad guy’ vibe without coming close to stealing the show and William Hurt is disappointing as Tom’s brother – although the problems with the ending certainly don’t help Hurt in anyway.

Indeed the ending is weak, destroying much of the good work built up over the preceding seventy minutes or so. Without spoiling it too much, the final confrontation alters the tone drastically, pushing the staid realism too far back towards its original comic book roots. The ending, bar the final family scenes which are well done, seems tacked on, as if someone realised the film was very slow and sought to liven it up. In doing so it removes the poignancy and the point of the movie, giving in to the urges it had, until that point, so aptly critiqued. It is a sign that perhaps the studios didn’t entirely have faith in Cronenberg’s vision and resorted to the familiar, rather than having the courage to see it through.                     

In conclusion A History of Violence is an enjoyable film where the theme of identity plays a significant role, making the audience wonder not so much who exactly Tom Stall is, but rather what type of man Tom Stall is and whether the two are different things. As a treatise on violence that makes the audience think, A History of Violence works very well but it’s poor pacing and weak ending let it down. 

Owen Jones © 2006

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