Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 36 minutes
MPAA Rating: R for Strong Brutal Violence, Graphic Sexuality, Nudity, Language and some Drug Use
Directed by: David Cronenberg
Written by: Josh Olson
(based on the graphic novel A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE by John Wagner & Vince Locke)
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, Ed Harris, William Hurt, Ashton Holmes, Peter MacNeill & Stephen McHattie
David Cronenberg made waves with his unique brand of body-horror (SHIVERS, THE BROOD, VIDEODROME) and a number of dark psychological thrillers (DEAD RINGERS, CRASH, SPIDER). This filmmaker seems most comfortable when he’s making difficult films that are sure to be a hit on the art-house circuit, but won’t likely connect with the general public. However, Cronenberg has also crafted a handful of mainstream hits. Next to his remake of THE FLY, A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE just might be his most accessible movie. Based on the graphic novel of the same name, VIOLENCE isn’t a bloody shoot-em-up from start to finish as its name implies, but rather a dark drama with spurts of graphic bloodshed. Those expecting a simple action thriller will find themselves disappointed, while those hoping for something deeper will be rewarded.
Tom Stall has made a good life for himself in a small peaceful Indiana town. He is a loving husband, a devoted father to his two children, and runs a little restaurant. One night, everything changes when two convicts attempt to violently rob Tom’s diner. With quick reflexes and a steady trigger finger, he kills both men. This has him lauded as a local hero by the townsfolk and news, but Tom is the quiet type and neither wants credit, nor the attention. There might be a reason for Tom’s reserved manner about the incident as some shady people, including a dead-eyed man, show up claiming that Tom is actually someone named “Joey.” As the Stall family’s encounters with these threatening men begin to reach a frightening peak, it’s clear that Tom might not actually be who he says he is.
HISTORY OF VIOLENCE is definitely a story with pulp conventions. As a result, there are some clichés (e.g. a kid being used as collateral), bits of cheesy dialogue, and the plot doesn’t exactly head in areas that we couldn’t correctly guess from miles away. However, the way that David Cronenberg treats this familiar material makes all the difference. More an examination of violence rather than just another action-oriented gangster tale with gun fights and explosions, there’s a dark emotional honest core at the center of VIOLENCE. The film takes its time to examine not just the restaurant incident’s effect of Tom (who’s slowly becoming a more confrontational individual), but also how his teenage son’s escalating conflict with a bully as well as Edie, Tom’s wife, watching her picture-perfect life crumbling around her.
As Tom Stall, Viggo Mortensen transforms into a small town guy with a dark secret. Once his character’s shadowy past comes to light, Mortensen does a brilliant job in showcasing Tom’s (or is it Joey’s?) darker side in a natural way that doesn’t feel out-of-place in the context of the story. Maria Bello is excellent as Tom’s wife and not simply a damsel in distress, but a woman faced with a life-changing revelation and must make difficult decisions as a result of that. In the villains department, the movie showcases great talent. Stephen McHattie (the smallest of the bad guys) has a memorable three-scene role as the thug who holds up Tom’s diner. Ed Harris is downright frightening as the dead-eyed man who’s stalking the Stall family. William Hurt doesn’t reveal himself until the final third of the film, but more than makes up for that with a sinister performance.
Though it’s far more restrained than those expecting a blood-soaked action flick might hope, Cronenberg delivers graphic gory visuals in his real-world approach to the pulpy material. When someone gets a bullet through their skull, we get a brief shot of their face blown halfway to hell and them choking on their blood. In another instance, someone’s nose is beaten to a gory crater. These scenes definitely don’t make up a majority of the story, which is all about build-up and the effect that these violent incidents are having on the lives of the Stall family, but they exist. The only moment that really felt exaggerated and silly to me was an unrealistic sex scene that comes right the hell out of nowhere during the second half. Otherwise, Cronenberg executes this somewhat clichéd material with a steady hand, heavy atmosphere, and careful attention to detail.
A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE might disappoint some people in not being a violent action-packed tale from start to finish, but instead being a dark slow-burn drama with shocking bursts of bloodshed. Cronenberg might not have made a straight-up genre picture or psychological head-trip this time around, but he told a story that seems all too frightening and relevant in our current times. A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE examines just how thin the barrier between a calm simple day and bloody chaos really is, as well as the life-shattering effects that violence can have on both victims and perpetrators.