Incidentally, unless stated upfront, I’ll never reveal anything about a film that can’t be gleaned from the trailer and advance publicity. There may be occasions where I want to discuss some vital element of the plot. In those cases, I’ll always provide a clear spoiler warning. This review does not contain any spoilers…
A History of Violence
I’ve been impressed by every David Cronenberg film I’ve seen to date. Because I’m intensely irritated by Jeremy Irons, I’ve never bothered watching Dead Ringers (it would be wasted on me), but aside from that I’ve seen almost everything Cronenberg’s done since Shivers and have yet to be disappointed. A History of Violence is no different.
I would say this about it though… whereas in the past I’d argue that you could either love or hate a Cronenberg film – there’d never be any middle ground – now I suspect that’s changed. I could imagine people being ambivalent about A History of Violence. Which is not to level criticism. I’m anything but ambivalent about the film. But it does lack something of the viscerality that typifies Cronenberg’s previous films.
That said, the relatively small amount, given the film’s title, of on-screen violence is nonetheless extremely realistic and graphic. Also typically of Cronenberg, the two sex scenes are long enough and intimate enough to merit an ’18’ certificate in these liberal times. And his handling of those sex scenes is truly masterful, highlighting the radical changes occurring within the film’s central relationship.
The film’s plot is deceptively simple. We are introduced to two sadistic child-murdering hoodlums. Then we are introduced to Tom Stall, close to being a stereotype out of America’s mythical Golden Era. He’s an honest, upstanding family man. He owns and runs Stall’s diner on the highstreet of a one-diner town somewhere in the midwest. We meet his wife and family… she’s beautiful and devoted and very much in love with her husband. Their son is in highschool and is having trouble with bullies, but he’s essentially a good kid. Tom’s daughter is much younger… a pretty blonde girl about the same age as the child we saw murdered in the first scene.
The hoodlums roll up at Stall’s diner and try to rob the place. Tom Stall (played far far better than I expected by Viggo Mortensen) tries to placate them… does all he possibly can to prevent violence… but when it becomes inevitable, he reacts explosively and leaves them both dead. The local community hail him as a hero – and indeed there’s not really any other way to interpret what happened… the fact that it was so cut-and-dried a situation makes what transpires next all the more intriguing.
As mentioned earlier; pretty much all of this can be gleaned from the film trailer (with perhaps the exception of just how nasty the men he kills are). As can the arrival of a very sinister Ed Harris looking for Tom Stall, who he believes he’s recognised from the media frenzy surrounding the diner incident.
What follows is an intricate deconstruction of how violence changes everything in a person’s life. The film is also a study (and it’s here that Mortensen’s performance is truly mesmerising) of the impossibility of ever completely escaping the past. Rarely have I seen inner-conflict so successfully portrayed, both by Mortensen himself and by Maria Bello who plays his wife.
As I said, this is probably not a film for the squeamish. It’s a long way from being a violent film, but the violence is portrayed – quite rightly – as both horrific and shocking, and one extreme image in particular will stick with me for a while to come I suspect. Despite this, I cannot recommend A History of Violence highly enough. Cronenberg has abandoned neither his philosophical curiosity nor his willingness to shock. He has merely blended both far more subtly than ever before into a film that can pass as a mainstream thriller if you don’t pay too much attention.
So when you tie all that up with a host of amazing performances, you’re left with a film that’s both philosophically compelling and highly entertaining. How often does that happen?