A History of Violence Review

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by Mark Botwright Feb 22, 2009 at 12:00 AM

    A History of Violence Review
    Reviewing films that have so many connections should be simple, but when they are put forward in a non chronological order then I'm afraid repetition can creep in. It can make it hard for a reviewer to adequately put across an evolution of work from an auteur without inevitably repeating oneself. However, sometimes the re-treading of ground and reiteration of valid points is entirely necessary. Thus having already covered David Cronenberg's 2007 London based Russian gangster piece Eastern Promises, I now step back a couple of years into the timeline of this man's career to look at the key progression and seismic shift he made when he helmed A History of Violence in 2005.

    There have been many films in recent years that have their roots in the world of comic books. I hardly need to list the output from the Marvel comics stable, but more interestingly, the shift to adaptations from what one can truly consider “graphic novels” has indeed begun. Many (myself included) have long been fans of the work of Frank Miller but it was always wondered how such stylised imagery and stark characters would transfer to the silver screen. This was particularly questionable in a post 9/11 world that seemingly hankered for the quaint simplicity of the Spidermans and X-Men of this world where the villains were always apparent and the good guys wore costumes. Thankfully, with enough faith placed in productions such as Sin City, this has increasingly shifted attention to the source industry and quite how mature many of its offerings are. Gone are the days when every page full of pictures contained a spandex clad man with a square jaw. It therefore should come as no surprise that A History of Violence is itself drawn from a graphic novel written by John Wagner and illustrated by Vincent Locke back in 1997.

    Having been associated with so called “body horror” films such as Videodrome and The Fly for some time, on the face of it the switch to more grounded storytelling that finds its base firmly in the real world could appear jarring to fans. The synopsis mentions no metamorphosis of body, hallucinatory delusions or exploding heads. This is a simple tale of a simple man - at least on the face of it. In this case, it just so happens that the man (Tom Stall) lives an idyllic life in a town that might have been called “Clydesville” by a late Rat Pack member, for all its homely charm and quaintness. Here, said man lives with his family consisting of a loving wife, teenage son and young daughter. Before you go assuming I've mistaken a Cronenberg piece for Happy Days, violence is never too far away, be it of the physical or mental variety. The peace and tranquillity of this flyover state nirvana is soon shattered when the family man is forced to defend his dining patrons from two drifting killers who chance upon the eatery. Like a darkened Friendly Persuasion, here our protagonist isn't given the opportunity to show mercy. The ensuing bloodbath sees him hailed as a hero and it is here that our story actually begins. Everything prior to this point is merely a setting of the scene for the plot and the characters within it to unfold.

    Enter Mr Fogarty (Ed Harris), a dark figure clad in a suitably obsidian bespoke suit and sunglasses - clearly not from the small town and not with the best intentions. He claims knowledge of Stall and who he really is. Does the mild mannered man behind the counter hide a shady past or is this interloper mistaken? This premise drives the story through three very distinct acts and touches upon subjects that aren't wholly unfamiliar to Cronenberg fans. For all his body shocks, he consistently looks at the nature of identity and the transformation of individuals - in the past this metamorphosis has been centred on the physical, whereas here it is shifted to the psychological and emotional states.

    The central character is played by Viggo Mortensen, with this film marking the first of the two the director and star would make together (so far that is), with the second obviously being Eastern Promises. I've never been the greatest fan of Mortensen, but his works with Cronenberg have certainly changed my views of him with this being a tour de force of restrained emotional acting. If the second collaboration brought with it a mask that he was to wear, that of the poker faced gangster, here he is instead given the burden of laying bare all emotions that are linked to a man's deconstruction. The rest of the cast aren't outshined in any way though, as Maria Bello (Seen recently in The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor) has to mirror this performance with one as adept of her own in order to give Tom Stall some kind of anchor which his drifting life can revolve around as well as even out the immense amount of screen time given over to Mortensen's character. The peripheral cast also do a fine job of filling out this world and instilling a sense of believability - they create a world in which Stall inhabits rather than this simply being a three walled set. Ed Harris and William Hurt bookend the second and third acts, never overlapping but rather embodying the presence of danger. They lurk, just as Stall's own past does in his conscious and subconscious mind. Harris never pours on threats or plays the heavy to the extreme degree, but rather lets the silence between the two men speak volumes, both about the impending confrontation between them and that of Stall's two worlds colliding.

    These are all very contemplative plus points but there are a few possibly significant flaws here that, depending upon your sensibilities, adversely affect the film as a whole. For one, the setting is almost too quaint. Customers in the diner utter things such as “see you in church” upon leaving and during the robbery there are actually two teenage sweethearts sharing a fudge sundae. It almost seems as though Richie Cunningham and the Fonz are about to stroll around the corner for all its 50's charm. If it weren't for the cars and guns used there literally wouldn't be anything to actually date this film as being set in the present day. This may seem like a criticism, but it works for some strange reason. It harks back to a simpler time and also to a style of film that is no longer made. At one point in cinema history, the story of Midwestern cowboys, mild mannered men who broke and succumbed to violent ways to solve a greater evil was a standard theme in tales such as Destry Rides Again. Similarly, the overly, almost sickeningly sweet painting of the deep love between this long married couple could be portrayed as a detraction to the realism of harsh emotions, but it is only once the partnership unwinds amid distrust that the loss is truly felt by viewer and character alike - an impact that surely would have been lessened by a more sober depiction of marriage.

    No, these minor criticisms, even if upheld by some, don't detract from the mountain of contemplative thought provoking themes explored craft-fully in this model of mature film making. There are the occasional visceral scenes which hark back to Cronenberg's history of cinematic gore but on the whole it is treated in an altogether different manner. Whereas once the man might have wallowed to a certain degree in the effects of violence, here he instead allows the blood to flow but points the lingering camera's gaze upon the perpetrator of the act rather than the act itself. It is a fine example of how the director has evolved his style that the only scene that contained such true horror shocks found itself on the cutting room floor rather than in the final piece. Like Eastern Promises, what some might consider gruesome is never simply shied way from, however here the director has an actor capable of portraying the minutiae of emotions involved with the repercussions of horror and as such, the horror itself is heightened.

    Overall, of the two Cronenberg/Mortensen films, this has to rate as the more intense. Having seen Eastern Promises prior to having first viewed this, I was fully expecting a taut and slick thriller that contained enough brains to make it a talking point but also enough clout to fit in with other similar films I thought I had in my collection. Put simply, I was wrong. There are few films quite like this, particularly in American cinema. Part gritty Midwest tale of simplicity versus barbarity and modernism, part pot boiler style drama of the breaking of marriage and familial ties. The main meat of the story around which all this is grown is that of identity. Like the great Cronenberg films of the past, this raises more questions than it answers and poses thoughtful ponderings about violence, truth, relationships, culpability and ultimately, self. The pacing of the narrative is superb, with the first act setting the scene, the second giving us the drama and finally, the third allowing us to follow the central character into the lion's den of his past and all he has left unresolved. Tom Stall is a husband, father, simple man, diner owner and possibly a killer, but which will enter the mansion that is the physical representation of his past life and which will leave? The conclusion hits home with a solid punch due to its ambiguity and leaves a vacuum once the credits have rolled - I don't know of any greater compliment for a film. Flawed, possibly, but certainly one to watch for its musings on the nature of split personalities and the multiple roles we all play in different areas of our lives.

    The Rundown

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