David Cronenberg’s ‘A Dangerous Method’ (2011) is coming to the UK’s cinemas in February 2012, giving a good pretext to review one of the director’s most violent, action-driven and thought-provoking films – ‘A History of Violence’. Cronenberg excels himself in this film, blending a complex personality study and raw violence to a very satisfying result.
The film’s plot is straightforward. Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) is an ordinary, law-abiding family man who runs his own diner in a small town in the US. His settled daily routine changes when he involuntarily becomes a local community hero after protecting his employees from some vicious gun men. From then on, his family is stalked by members of an Irish-American mob who are convinced that Tom Stall is Joey Cusack, a man from Philadelphia with a violent past. His wife Eddie (Maria Bello), his son Jack (Ashton Holmes) and his young daughter all feel overwhelmed by the changes. After a shooting incident, whereby Tom kills one of the mob guys, Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris), Tom finally confesses that he was Joey in the past, but has left that life for good. Later, Tom receives a call from his brother Richie Cusack (William Hurt) telling him to come to Philadelphia to see him. Tom does just this, and after a confrontation with his brother, kills him. The ending, depicting Tom coming home from Philadelphia to find his family at a dinner table, is very thought-provoking because, although his children are seemingly prepared to forgive him, it is unclear whether his wife is capable of accepting him into her life again.
The film is about many things, but it particularly well explores the theme of a man’s duality: how far a man is prepared to forsake one of his personalities, so that another can fully emerge? This film is not about multiple-personality disorder or schizophrenia, as some claim. Tom Stall is a man who has decided to turn his life around, having a supposed bad up-bringing. He is a man on a run from his dark, haunting past. One very convincing interpretation of this is the fact that Tom is remorseful regarding any acts of violence he has unjustly committed in his past. Also, as the film’s ending shows, ‘A History of Violence’ is also a story about forgiveness, and how far one is prepared to forgive oneself and others for past actions.
The film’s opening sequence is remarkable. It shows two violent and ruthless men, relaxed and unconcerned, after just committed gruesome crimes at a nearby store. Then, there is a shocking scene of a little girl’s murder. Although the camera and sound-work are very good here, the scene’s meaning is somehow lost if one knows the event sequence to follow. This scene’s main purpose is to introduce the audience to the film’s violent genre, and to emphasise Tom Stall’s superior combat skills and violent “know-hows” after he later confronts the same gunmen in his own store. The implicit assumption here is that no one could have had the strength and skill to disarm these two totally deranged and violent men single-handedly; no one, maybe, apart from a man with a long history of violence.
There are only five major events of violent nature in this film (the opening sequence’s violent scenes; Tom Stall’s “defensive” actions at his diner; Jack’s fight with his classmate; the scene of violence in front of Tom Stall’s house; and the final “confrontation” scene between Tom Stall and his brother Richie). However, it is the quality of these scenes, rather than their quantity which stands out, making the film gripping to watch. The acts of violence depicted are very realistic, with the camera being unafraid to show the worst, while, at the same time, being swift in its execution.
Since this movie comes from the director of ‘Crash’ (1996), sex scenes are almost expected to be included in this film, and, somehow, they fit well into this picture, because violent sex is yet another pretext to hint at Tom Stall’s “violent”, repressed character. In ‘A History of Violence’, sex is either passionate or forceful or both, with the camera not lingering too long for the audience to take the panorama in. One of the most memorable scenes is the heated sex, almost bordering a rape, between Tom and Eddie on wooden stairs at their home. Here, violence is again ever-present as Eddie slaps Tom, and both of them get bruised on the stairs.
The dialogue content and little details throughout the film contribute to the movie being so thought-provoking and intelligent. In one scene, the audience sees Tom arriving at work in the morning, picking up litter along the way. This simple action by Tom demonstrates that he is not just an ordinary resident in this small town: he is the one who truly cares about his community and its image. Then, the audience finds Tom being amused/surprised by the comments which reference violence, thrown at him by his employee. Tom shows normal responses of an average man, and, at this point, the audience cannot fully comprehend his reactions as they are still unaware of Tom’s criminal past and how far he tries to conceal his matter-of-fact attitude upon hearing those comments. The references are about a girl who used to stick forks in her friend, but whom she later married. Here, the film is all about irony, because the audience will find out later that it is Tom’s wife who in fact married a man with a violent past.
The “false alarm” scene sequence in the movie is very telling, and probably contains the movie’s main idea. This is the scene where Tom, upon seeing the car of the Irish gang driving away from his diner in the direction of his home, frantically calls his wife, telling her to get the rifle and be ready, while he sets for home on foot. Through this distressing scene, the audience gets a glimpse of Tom’s paranoid, “violence-filled” set of mind. Tom’s reaction here is striking as he immediately thinks the worst. There is no clue that the car really has set for Tom’s home, and yet Tom is full of panic. His reaction is even more bewildering to watch given his family’s calm and composed demeanour.
The cast is good here. Viggo Mortensen does a good job portraying Tom Stall. Even when the audience finds out about this man’s ‘history of violence’, Tom, nevertheless, commands respect and sympathy. Harrison Ford was originally considered for the role, but turned it down. Perhaps, this was for the best. Though it is plausible that Ford, known for such films as ‘The Fugitive’ (1993) and ‘Presumed Innocent’ (1990), would have made a perfect law-abiding citizen fighting his violent past, if he were in the lead role, ‘A History of Violence’ could have been viewed as just another sequel to one of his movies, rather than something more-or-less original. Maria Bello as Tom’s wife convinces in her role, even though she is annoying at times because of her over-use of the word “baby”. Ed Harris playing Carl Fogarty, an Irish-American gangster, is also very realistic in his villain portrayal. However, it is William Hurt, playing Tom’s brother, Richie, who tops the cast. Hurt is just brilliant in his portrayal of the egoistic and maniac brother. If Hurt’s character were developed more in the film, it would not have been surprising to see him made ‘Top 50 Villains of All Time’ list – he is that good. The whole concept of a “brother” present in the script is also no coincidence. The idea may be that a “good” brother kills an “evil” one to live a satisfying life. However, the stress here is also on the fact that Tom could have ended up exactly as Richie, i.e., being a cruel gangster, but, having a choice, Tom opted for a moral life.
On the downside, even knowing that most Cronenberg’s films are not the longest in the world e.g., ‘The Fly’ (1986) lasted just under 95 minutes and ‘Spider’ (2002) – 98 minutes, ‘A History of Violence’ could have had more than it does to feel “complete”. Perhaps more hints could have been offered as to Tom’s previous life and the extent to which he has undergone a “bad-to-good-guy” change. ‘A History of Violence‘ does leave an impression that one has seen only a fraction of a whole story to be told, although, probably, the most interesting part.
What makes ‘A History of Violence’ stand out from other similar genred-films is its simple plot-line, and a masterful direction and acting, which make the characters appear multi-dimensional and complex, and the story intelligent and gripping. In that way, ‘A History of Violence’ has almost an 1980s-movie-feel to it with its minimal special effects and very good acting, making it among Cronenberg’s very best. 9/10