WFTB Score: 13/20
The plot: When mild-mannered cafe owner Tom Stall foils a robbery by shooting the perpetrators, he brings himself to the attention of a group of hard men who recognise him: not as Tom, but as someone called Joey with a violent past back in Philadelphia. As Tom struggles to keep his wife, teenage son and young daughter out of harm’s way, the family must decide whether Tom is the family man he has always seemed to be or the ruthless killer that others recognise.
The output of David Cronenberg has spanned the decades but has rarely been anything other than confrontational, controversial and disturbingly frank about the human body – inside and out – and the relationship of the rest of the world with it. Based on a graphic novel, A History of Violence is a world away from the gristly* horror of Rabid, The Fly or even Existenz, but no less disturbing for that.
The film’s shocking opening sequence, where the staff and family of a grim motel are dispatched by a pair of emotionless robbers, is almost a false start since these criminals are not the subjects of the story. They do, however, make the mistake of visiting Tom Stall’s diner in the sleepy town of Millbrook. A quiet man with the perfect nuclear family, Tom (Viggo Mortensen) initially attempts to placate the men but when the waitress is threatened, he attacks them and kills them both with surprising efficiency.
He becomes a hero in the town, especially to his bullied son Jack (Ashton Holmes) who emulates his father with too much enthusiasm; but the publicity surrounding Tom’s actions brings the sinister and disfigured Mr Fogarty (Ed Harris) to the town, with a posse of heavies who keep a close eye on Tom – who they insist is really ‘Joey’ – and his family, completed by wife Edie (Maria Bello) and daughter Sarah. When Fogarty and friends get too close for comfort, Tom’s actions show him in a new light to his family, and bring him back in touch with an almost-forgotten brother, Richie (William Hurt).
To go into any more detail would be to explain the film rather too much. Suffice to say that throughout A History of Violence our sympathies twist and turn: we love Tom when he protects himself and his workforce from the nasty men; we love him even more when he protects his family from Fogarty and Co. And yet we are forced to throw all our admiration out of the window when Joey rears his ugly head and the full scale of his misdemeanours is revealed. All the while, the tension in the Stall household and the appearance of strangers in the peaceful town of Millbrook (‘we’re nice people here,’ insists sergeant Sammy (Peter MacNeill)) lends the film an intriguingly uneasy quality, at least while we don’t know how much Tom doesn’t know.
Furthermore, in typical Cronenberg fashion, the viewer is appalled and challenged in equal measure, most notably when Tom/Joey appears to assault and then attempt to rape his wife, except we are never quite sure whether Edie is being violated or excited by the physicality of the sex (it certainly stands in marked contrast to the tender role-play early on in the film). The argument could be made that even suggesting such ambiguity is inappropriate and degrading to women, but I believe it adds to the film’s message that we have an ambiguous approach to violence, with many people finding it at least partially erotic.
The ambivalence of Tom’s character is mirrored by Jack: we root for him to stand up to the school bully, but when he exacts his revenge the result is so unpleasant that we’d rather he hadn’t done it (and, by extension, been humiliated/beaten up himself). Such a gutsy story requires gutsy acting, and Viggo Mortensen is excellent as Tom, with Maria Bello providing strong but conflicted support as his wife. Their relationship drives the film but the other cast are also effective, notably Ed Harris as the thoroughly unpleasant Fogarty, who perhaps doesn’t deserve all the mistrust he receives.
If there is a disappointment, it is that once Joey has accepted his old identity, the resolution to that story is through more of the unrealistically deft violence as he has previously displayed. It is unlikely that any alternative would have been dramatically satisfying, of course, but once the film loses its intrigue it starts to feel rather routine.
You could say that this merely reflects the viewer’s standard desensitization to violence as the picture progresses, but that probably credits Cronenberg with too much social commentary. A History of Violence is not the easiest film to watch, and it certainly won’t be to everyone’s tastes: but it has a story with more cause and effect than many a crash-bang action movie, and more to think about than nearly all of them.
NOTES: I have no idea whether this is a typo or not. The usual description of horror is ‘grisly’, of course, but ‘gristly’ seems an entirely appropriate description.