Written by Josh Olsen
Directed by David Cronenberg
2005, judging by the theatrical releases, was an exceptional year for the neonoir sub-genre. Last summer, for the special Friday (neo)Noir series, reviews for Rian Johnson’s breakout independent hit Brick and Robert Rodriguez’s cinematic visualization of Sin City, both from 2005, were written. A couple of weeks ago another neonoir from the same year was put under the microscope, Shane Black’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. This week features, yes, still another entry from that illustrious year, one from the most lauded director of the bunch, David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence.
Set in Millbrook, Indiana, A History of Violence shares the tale of the Stalls, namely Tom (Viggo Mortensen), Edie (Maria Bello) and their son Jack (Ashton Holmes), all of whom live a reasonably quiet life, with the exception of Jack, a bright student mocked and physically assaulted by a few bullish classmates. Tom works at a local diner, calmy and gladly serving customers day in and day out. Their existence as a tightly knit family unit is put into serious doubt when Tom miraculously rescues patrons at the restaurant from two thugs who very aggressively attempt a holdup. Tom overspowers and kills both with one of their own firearms. Soon thereafter he is declared a hero by the townsfolk and the media circus, a celebrity status that attracts other, clearly more determined hoodlums let by Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris). They harass Tom and his family, imploring that the he come back to Philadelphia to reunite with his mob leader brother. Tom denies everything, naturally, but his family begins to doubt his real identity…
A History of Violence marked a major turning point of sorts in the career of director David Cronenberg. Up until then, his oeuvre was recognized and applauded for its morbid, yet viscerally and intellectually stimulating ‘body horror’ theme, followed sparingly by a few very low key dramas like M. Butterfly and Spider. Violence suddenly put Cronenberg on the movie map in a way that had not been the case probably since 1986 when The Fly made good at the box office and garnered respect from the Academy Awards. The relative mainstream popularity of Violence was aided of course by the presence of Viggo Mortensen who, only a few years prior, had seen his own stardom rise exponentially after partaking in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Concerns of Cronenberg ‘going mainstream’ were brushed aside upon the film’s release. The director proposes an intricately woven study of one man’s battle with an inescapable past, a battle which inexorably leads him to simultaneously confront his present in the shape of his wife and children who see him in completely different light. Needless to say, whatever the outcome, the events shall dramatically influence his future. The basis for the plot, that Tom’s past returns to haunt him, is, as fans are well aware, vintage noir, but so is the idea of the living nightmare, wherein the protagonist, despite his or her best efforts, cannot vanquish the outside forces pressuring, resulting in one predicament leading another and yet another, usually each one more dire than the last. Whether due to sheer dumb luck, poor decision making on the hero’s part or cleverer antagonists, the central character is unable to deviate from the destiny of dancing with trouble. However much Tom plays innocent in front of the media, his family and even Carl Fogarty (particularly when other folks are around), claiming that he merely got lucky and did what any other honest person would do, the Philadelphia thug keeps pressing Tom to finally reveal himself, further complicating not only his tête-à-tête with Carl, but his increasingly delicate relationship with those dearest to him.
The story’s potency lies in large part in the way director Cronenberg paces his film, opting for a deliberate, careful buildup, with each portion of the story provided ample running time to let its tone and character development flourish properly. The movie’s somewhat misleading opening scene, featuring the two gangsters who will perish shortly later (Stephen McHattie and Greg Byrk), demonstrates Cronenberg’s ability to create a terrific sense of increasing dread with a few looks from character gazes and subtle reveals of visual information. What follows is a tripartite journey, each chapter fully realized to convey the emotional, psychological gravitas that shifts as new events and revelations arise. First there is the shockingly violent occurrence which disrupts Tom’s tranquil lifestyle in a town totally unaccustomed to such an ordeal. Second comes the immediate aftermath during which Tom, because of his real identity and the attraction his selfless act has gathered, is reduced to getting defensive and distance himself from notions of heroism, trying to remain as anonymous as possible under circumstances where anonymity is virtually impossible. Third is the difficult confession, the realization that Tom is truly chained to his unenviable history and by the act of destroying the people and places that made him who he is, the physical manifestations of what he wanted to escape from in the first place. In an absolutely brilliant final scene, the movie suggests that the Stall’s will try to pick up the pieces and continue with their lives, although the viewer is left uncertain as to their chances of success. Violence’s structure and pacing are extremely conducive for feeling the weight of the drama, beat by beat, including the effect Tom’s family.
Cronenberg has, since the earliest days of his film career, possessed the magic touch when casting prolific actors and actresses in his projects. Few actors worked with him on multiple films, excluding small supporting roles, Jeremy Irons being the only thespian to star in two films up until that point (Dead Ringers and M Butterfly). That changed with Viggo Mortensen, who would collaborate twice more with the director on 2007’s Eastern Promises and 2011’s A Dangerous Method. Mortensen’s strength, here and in several of his key performances, is his ability to understate a lot of emotions. Rather than aim for grandeur, the actor keeps the performance low key for much of the running length, therefore making his eruptions into violence all the more surprising. The power of the role is in how relatively and visibly calm it is until the breaking point is reached, and even then he goes about laying villains to waste with an icy, steely resolve instead of bravado. Maria Bello is given the more typical wife role, yet she excels with the material, showing far more rage in protecting her children than Tom does once Carl Fogarty begins to intrusively close in on them. Harris himself is in fine form as Carl, a beast of a man who provokes the Stalls with the most unconvincing smile imaginable, barely concealing the maniacal violence that lurks beneath. Praise should also go to Ashton Holmes as Jack Stall. Holmes deftly highlights the awkwardness of teenage years, both before and after he takes example of his father and fights back against his high school oppressors
A History of Violence represents the high point of Cronenberg’s high minded dramas. While consistently delivering interesting, solid work, none of his other ‘normal’ pictures possess the same balance of excellent, three dimensional characters, raising stakes and all around compelling story. While it is easy to fondly reminisce the director’s early horror work, Violence demonstrates his capacity to delve into vastly different and no less satisfying genres, including film noir.