David Cronenberg’s “A History of Violence” (2005) is a deceptively clever thriller that lures you in with the promise of action but delivers instead an impressive exhibition of serious ideas. Based on a graphic novel of the same name by John Wagner and Vince Locke, its purpose is to test the limits of our appetite for violence and ‘righteous’ bloodshed. After the credits, I not only felt somewhat guilty for feeling gratified by the cruelty in this film, but I soon questioned my appreciation for it in a great many pictures that I enjoy. Its not just lil’ old me, however, who gets some sick pleasure from the violence and hyper-stylised bloodshed endemic in modern cinema, but pretty much everyone. Tarantino, Scorsese, Spielberg, Coppola, Kubrick, and De Palma have all made grossly successful films that appeal to this hunger, and we’d be foolish to say that it doesn’t affect our psyche. In this now classic picture, Cronenberg thoughtfully explores this widespread affliction with style, passion, nuance, and some frightfully good visuals. Once you show up, I doubt you’ll want to drop out.
Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) is living some enviable version of the American dream. He owns a thriving diner in the heart of Millbrook, a small town in the American state of Indiana, where he spends his days pouring coffee for his fellow townsfolk; all of whom he knows by name. Back at his beautiful country home his life looks even more idyllic. He has two beautiful children, the eldest his teenage son Jack (Ashton Holmes) and the youngest his daughter Sarah (Heidi Hayes). His wife Edie (Maria Bello) glares at him with a longing affection that he just can’t seem to shake. After a romantic evening together, Tom confesses to Edie that, early on in their relationship, he noticed this loving look in her eyes; a look that has not faded since. She responds saying that it remains there because she still loves him. But, as it turns out, Tom isn’t, and wasn’t always, himself. And, through one brutal act of self-defence, we begin to see the history of who he once was. A history of violence.
Closing up shop one evening, two men barge into Tom’s diner demanding coffee and pie. Tom, in his mild manner, suggests that they should leave. The two men, who I suspect were never much interested in pie or coffee, pull out guns and start abusing those trapped inside. In the heat of the moment, Tom kills them both while suffering only a minor injury. He is commended in Millbrook as a hero, and is heralded in nationwide news as a small business owner defending his livelihood. Tom isn’t visibly all that bothered by the fact that he just killed two men. He just wants to forget about the whole thing and move on. His family notice this, but none of them seem too concerned. Any hope of returning to paradise, however, is squandered with the introduction of Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris), a mobster from Philadelphia who begins harassing the town with incessant claims that Tom isn’t, in fact, who he says he is. And, bit by bit, Tom’s hitherto peaceful life starts to crumble.
‘A History of Violence’ is about the unescapable historicity of our identity. What makes Tom so compelling, and the direction of the narrative so engrossing, is his struggle to realise this dream while the history of who he was, or perhaps still is, refuses to let him go. Meanwhile, Edie and the kids are forced to contend with the possibility that he is perhaps more, or less, than the man they thought they knew. Those crucial moments when his family either cannot recognise him, or fully and absolutely see him for who he really is, are not only the hardest to watch but the points at which some core questions of the movie come up for air: who is this man? Is he who he was or is he who he strives to be? The answer lies in the hauntingly beautiful final scene, in which Tom return to his family and joins them in silence at the dinner table. His daughter grabs a plate for him, and the son offers him some meat loaf. They are unable to look at one another. Edie is praying, and only God knows what for.
Tom is neither the man he was before they knew him, nor solely the man who they came to know; he is some imperfect, all-too-human combination of them both. He is the culmination of all his history, from all his acts of violence to each and every act of tenderness and love, and the full truth of this reality is almost too much for them all, including Tom himself, to bear. The American Dream, their little slice of paradise, has been shattered. How can they go on? In the closing moment of the film, Edie looks up at Tom and, for the first time, she sees him in his totality. The look we see, however, is not one of hate or resentment for all the lies and for the seemingly endless river of blood that he has spilled, but that same look that Tom could never quite shake nor quite understand. We see that she still loves him, and likewise see that now, after all their time together, he finally understands how terrifyingly unconditional that love is. Looking back at her, we finally see him at his most vulnerable; unable to quite believe that anyone, let alone the person who he loves and yet deceived the most, can even begin to love who he really is.
The picture itself, beyond the richness of the ideas at play, unravels in much the same way that most other good thrillers do. What sets the movie apart from your overage thriller, however, is David Cronenberg’s appetite for the slow-burn. He manages to make you anxious about otherwise innocuous things, which in turn leads the really explosive events to hit you even harder. Josh Olson’s screenplay plays a huge role, too, in making sure that the tension and pacing work as well as they do. Seemingly small and meaningless interactions carry a mystery and intrigue that keeps you totally immersed in the plot, and all the characters speak and behave exactly how you would expect them to given the absurdity of what’s infecting their small town. I suppose quite a bit of this also comes down to the clever cinematography by Peter Suschitzky, who most notably was behind the camera during the production of The Empire Strikes Back, and the stellar editing by Ronald Sanders. Both these artists have a long history with Cronenberg and it definitely shows. Their work gives this movie a suffocating and paranoid feeling from start to finish that flavours every beat and every payoff that the movie offers.
William Hurt’s incredible performance here as Richie Cusack got all the media and awards attention upon the films release, and its certainly not hard to figure out why. His nine-minute appearance in the third act is where every ounce of build-up and tension gets its payoff and release. Few actors could have exceeded the expectations that were levelled at his feet due to the nature of the story being told, but Hurt did just that. His monologues, mannerisms, and overall vibe is absolutely captivating. Mortensen’s performance as Tom, however, is the real key to the film’s success. There are moments wherein you can feel his fear and paranoia through the look in his eyes alone, whilst the uneasiness he carries and mutation he endures from the diner-fight onwards is the hook that keeps us interested. Mario Bello is the human touch of a story that is otherwise completely inhumane. Her slow but excruciating realisation that she barely knows her husband, and her conversations with him in the wake of this realisation, help us step back and recognise the utter cruelty and senselessness that much of the movie trades in. There’s a brutal sex scene between her character and Mortensons that wholly illustrates the impact this violence is having on every aspect of their lives, and I’d be lying if I said it was easy watching. Its a testament to the integirty of those behind and in front of the camera that this scene comes across as entirely tasteful and appropriate to the message of the picture.
“A History of Violence” is a surprising but welcome departure from Cronenberg’s usual shtick of horror science-fiction, and it’s undoubtedly his best movie to date. For me, it narrowly beats out his fantastic “Eastern Promises” (2007) that followed two years later. Much of his work before these masterpieces, with the exception of “The Fly” (1986) and “The Dead Zone” (1983), leaves a lot to be desired in terms of both interesting characters and rich storytelling. Ultimately, the film works because the violence within it is the subject of the plot, and thus works in service to it, rather than that kind of mindless and gratuitous brutality that only keeps the audience amused and distracted. It’s somewhere between a thriller, an action film, and a drama depending on what angle you come at it from. And yet, when you’re in its grasp, its richness feels entirely simple. A History of Violence succeeds because it does a whole lot of difficult things incredibly well and ends up saying something meaningful that all moviegoers need to hear every now and again: violence is a terrible thing, and it says a lot about who we are that we get so much pleasure just by watching it.