A History of Violence
September 23rd, 2005
Reviewers and film fanatics alike have this little thing they like to tell themselves when they’ve just been through a less than satisfying cinematic experience from a favorite director. We tell ourselves a lesser movie from this director is still better than most of the junk released into theatres. So while this axiom might be true in the case of David Cronenberg’s latest film, “A History of Violence,” it’s still little consolation to see a great filmmaker stumble through little fault of his own.
In an idyllic small town somewhere in Indiana (one that probably has not existed in many years, or at least never has in any of my visits to the Hoosier State over the past quarter century to spend birthdays and holidays with grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins), the Stall family appears to still live the Norman Rockwell life, or as much as one can in this moment of history. Father Tom (Viggo Mortensen, solidifying his bid to be this generation’s Gary Cooper) and mother Edie (the exquisite Maria Bello) still have breakfast every morning at their kitchen table with their teenage son Jack (Ashton Holmes) and golden-haired six-year-old daughter Sarah (Heidi Hayes) before heading off to work. As the proprietor of the local diner, Tom enjoys the quiet comforts of small town life, so when he finds himself the unlikely hero after dispatching a pair of vicious serial killers who have stopped in for some coffee, pie, money and murder, he wants nothing to do with the ensuing national publicity. Unfortunately for Tom and his family, an unexpected and unwanted effect of the publicity is the arrival of Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris), who is absolutely certain Tom is not the guy he claims he is but Crazy Joey Cusack, a small-time hood from Philadelphia whose lust for harming people included maiming Carl’s face with a large piece of barbed wire. Of course, no one believes Tom, who has been a pillar of the community and a man of peace since he arrived many years before, is who Carl claims he is.
And thus, the crux of the story is set, as well as its own undoing. If Carl is wrong, and Tom does not have a secret past, anything that happens to Tom and his family is unjustified and immoral. Thus, we can only deduce that Carl is telling the truth, and Tom must be this evil psycho. Even the title of the film gives it all away. It’s not called “A History of Ambiguity” or “A History of Peace,” after all. “A History of Violence” promises much ferocity and bloodletting, and fortunately Cronenberg and the film do deliver. The carnage is quick and brutal and realistic, and the effects are just as vicious. Edie is forced to choose what is worse: discovering her husband is capable of committing such atrocities, or that much of her life over the past twenty years has been built upon a house of lies that has just been demolished to the ground.
But like “Twin Peaks,” “A History of Violence” is built upon the lie that life in small town Americana is somehow more tranquil, that families are closer the farther away they are from the big city or that kids in small towns are better behaved than city folk. So it’s not exactly Earth-shattering when these untruths are exposed, nor is it surprising that a talented filmmaker like David Cronenberg could do so little with a story that was too slight to begin with. Some who are disaffected with the current political climate (read: aging hippies and Canadians) might find some kind of cognitively subversive dissonance to cling onto, projecting their own wishful longing for a peaceful world they know will never return into a film whose anti-hero never truly rejects or shows remorse for the acts of violence he causes, but that’s a different kind of danger, looking back at what you once had and never looking towards the betterment of the future. In fact, when Tom is forced by Edie to reveal the truth, he never denounces his past and even semi-defends himself by proclaiming that he was re-born when he met her, as if what he did before is forgivable because he tried to escape and reinvent himself. But then, what can be said about a film that denounces violence by bringing out the violent tendencies of its lead character and then has him go on a trip which he knows the only escape from is to continue killing?
Viggo Mortensen has, since his major debut in Sean Penn’s 1991 film “The Indian Runner,” spend most of his career skirting the lines between handsome leading man and effective character actor. Tom Stall is the best character he’s ever worked with that finds a balance between the two, allowing him to be tender and quiet and ferocious and piercing, instantly switching identities as needed. “The Lord of the Rings” series may have finally given him the career security he needs to continue making these “smaller” films, but it has also given his public identity a false sense of heroism that could throw his newer fans unfamiliar with his darker sides. Still, it’s a strong performance, and one that could find the actor gaining a new respect from arthouse fans who scoff at such trivialities as hobbits and Gollums. Maria Bello, the one-time “E.R.” actress who gained some respectability in “The Cooler” two years ago, is the emotional anchor of “A History of Violence” as Edie, the one character who grows stronger and more resilient the worse things get. She might need a quick cry, but you know long after we’ve left her story, Edie will still be there, making sure everything in her family’s life runs as smoothly as possible. Ed Harris is... well, Ed Harris, one of the best actors working, a man who can pull a strong performance out of reading the ingredients of a bag of Cheetos. His Fogarty is pretty much the stock Harris character piercingly intense and cocksure, with a mangled face and messed-up eye.
Like most of Cronenberg’s movies of the past two decades, “Violence” has been shot by the great cinematographer Peter Suschitzky, whose non-Cronenberg work has been as varied as “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” and “The Empire Strikes Back.” The team of Cronenberg and Suschitzky is what I could imagine what Welles and Toland could have had if they had worked together on more films than just “Citizen Kane,” a symbiotic relationship which benefits both. In Cronenberg, Suschitzky gets a strong storyteller who is willing to let his cinematographer push the visuals beyond the limit. In Suschitzky, Cronenberg gets a photographer whose light paintings make him look like a master. With a film as technically undemanding as “Violence” (especially compared to “Dead Ringers” or “Naked Lunch”), the lighting is so natural, one must wonder if setups took no time at all. Howard Shore’s score, however, is not his best work. Many of his cues sound like they got mixed up, with many of the most dramatic cues laid in to build a false sense of dread, while most of the tensest moments featuring little to no underscore at all.
Well acted and photographed, “A History of Violence” eventually does not hold up due to its story’s own ambivalence towards its subject matter, a bloody mess whose butchery is over almost as quickly as it began. It will be interesting to see how the masses react to a film so repulsive and beautiful, and where Cronenberg takes us from here.
My rating: C