Spoiler Alert: There is no way to appropriately convey my opinion of this film without revealing key plot points. If you don’t want to know what happens, stop reading now.
David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence takes place in a small Indiana town. It’s the kind of place Norman Rockwell might have painted. Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) is the owner of the local restaurant, known for its good coffee. Tom and his wife Edie (Maria Bello) enjoy a happy marriage and, as we see early on, a lively sex life. They also have two children: a teenage boy and a little girl.
As he’s closing up the restaurant one night, two thugs come in and try to rob the place at gunpoint. To everyone’s surprise (including his own), Tom reacts with violence, subduing and killing the robbers. Everyone in town starts proclaiming him a hero, a label that Tom shrugs off. The next day, a strange, facially disfigured man named Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris) shows up in the restaurant with two goons in tow. He claims to know Tom as “Joey,” an infamous, brutal mafia guy who maimed him back in Philadelphia. Tom insists he’s never even been to Philly and denies ever having been known as Joey. Fogarty keeps popping up to confront Tom on the issue, even going so far as to casually threaten Edie and the kids.
Fogarty keeps pushing until finally Tom reacts with brutal violence again. Now the secret is out. Yes, he is in fact Joey, and yes, he was a gangster in Philly. He assures Edie that he worked hard to get out of that lifestyle and become a good man. He never told her about his past because, as far as he was concerned, Joey was dead. Edie is horrified by the revelation and not at all sure she wants to stay with this man. Tom realizes that the only way to leave his past behind once and for all is to return to Pennsylvania to confront his brother, the gangster who is trying to pull him back in. William Hurt (oddly looking and sounding like Will Ferrell doing his James Lipton impression) plays the brother who tries to convince Tom to become Joey once again.
To me, David Cronenberg’s movies have always been like porcelain dolls in glass cases; they’re obviously very precious to the filmmaker, but he also discourages the audience from getting too close. Cronenberg likes to show the ugly side of human behavior. In Dead Ringers, he turned gynecological tools into a fetish item. In Crash, he showed us people who get sexual thrills from injuring themselves in auto accidents. In Naked Lunch, he took us on a stomach-churning tour of hallucinogenic madness. Not surprisingly, every single one of these pictures is an unpleasant viewing experience. If you’re going to enter such uncomfortable territory, you need to give the audience an emotional in-road. Cronenberg has no interest in doing that, though. His films are cold, clinical, and distant.
The approach has won him admirers, but I’m not one of them. I’ve always been put off by the lack of anything remotely warm or inviting about his movies. And this is coming from the guy who loves dark stuff like Fight Club, Reservoir Dogs, and Requiem for a Dream. Dark movies are perfectly fine, so long as the filmmaker provides an entry point – a way to make the themes accessible to the viewer. In contrast, Cronenberg seals off his stories, expecting the audience to admire them from a distance. Put another way, it’s all from the head and not at all from the heart.
A History of Violence is more mainstream than the director’s other works, but it’s also the one that most cries out for some emotion. For this story to really work, we need to care about Tom Stall. He must seem real to us. We must like him. Cronenberg tries to make his point about violence without doing this. We are supposed to detect Tom’s inner identity struggle without really knowing anything about him. We are supposed to take his fluctuating moral compass seriously, even though his motivations are rarely clear. Why was Tom (or, more accurately, Joey) so bad in the first place? What happened that made Tom want to become a better man? How does he feel when confronted about his past? The movie never gives us these important details. Consequently, the theme seems a lot emptier than it is supposed to. Despite my distaste for David Cronenberg’s films, he is clearly a director with something to say. He no doubt wanted to say something profound about the nature of violence, but his approach betrays his intentions.
A History of Violence is, ostensibly, about a man realizing that the only way to finally escape the violent ways of his past is to embrace them one last time. If we don’t feel the weight of that situation at every moment (which we do not), the whole thing implodes. For comparison, consider Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, which told essentially the same story, yet drew us in by letting us know and even empathize with the main character. Tom Stall, on the other hand, is a blank slate, a generic “family man” with no discernable personality or charisma. His struggle and its outcome seem more like the mechanics of a screenplay rather than an actual moral dilemma.
The performances are good (considering that the actors don’t always have enough to work with), and effective individual moments indicate that the raw materials were all present to really drive this story home. However, the good things only left me wanting more, and A History of Violence is doggedly, infuriatingly about giving less.
( out of four)
A History of Violence is rated R for strong brutal violence, graphic sexuality, nudity, language and some drug use. The running time is 1 hour and 36 minutes.
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