So totally American is David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence, it may not be readily apparent in how the film is being marketed to consumers and the general public alike. His newest and highly accessible film is certainly going to be one that raises questions, creates arguments and happily avoids all answers. It isn’t that A History of Violence is vague, actually it’s story, premise and entire set-up is very straight forward, it’s just that this is one of those rare films that has something for everyone. It might actually be something the studio heads could call the “four quadrant intellectual film,” yet even that description doesn’t totally sum up what this movie is.
Tom Stall lives with his wife and children in a small American town. One night two men come into his family diner and try to hold the place up. Stall kills the two men and is suddenly on TV even though he does everything in his power to shy away from the limelight. After this, gangsters show up in his peaceful town because they think Tom Stall is someone else. Also, they have a score to settle. The movie then becomes a bit of an “is he or isn’t he”-type thing, however, I am not going to say anything else about the plot for fear of spoiling this film for viewers. This movie had a nice, slow build up to what seems like the central action of the movie. Yet, Cronenberg uses the conceits and familiar themes of many different genres to explore such issues as family life, sex, violence and identity. While neither one of these issues is ever in the forefront of the film for very long, they are all in place to create a mood that haunts this film.
Viggo Mortensen has done his best to make his career one of interesting characters. Tom Stall certainly fits within this milieu. While Mortensen projects the good looks and charm that we have come to expect in our movie stars, it is apparent that there is something below the surface. Something deep within himself that he only uses his “art” to understand. Almost as if should he try and bring it out in his own reality, he might learn too much and then know his boundaries. Maria Bello as Edie Stall, the classical American wife, also lends this film a very solid character portrayal. One moment you think she is one way then it turns out she has a whole other side to her. Much like how I suppose most people are when the doors are closed, the blinds are pulled down and we can be alone and intimate with the people we love.
Ed Harris is chillingly brilliant as Carl Fogaty. With a distorted face, every time he speaks it is as if his posing a question, that will only be turned upside down when he processes it in his brain. Like the child when you were younger that was always looking for trouble, Harris embodies that and is out for that at the same time. William Hurt as Richie plays a much different role than any I have ever seen him play. It is almost as if he is a hip-hop, street smart hustler, in the body of a mafia boss on a conservative plantation. He throws around the term “Brohim” as if it’s supposed to create trust and endearment. And honestly, he pulls off being likable but then again that’s the terms main function anyway. To disarm all who might be called a “Brohim,” so that they won’t suspect it when he acts anything like a “Bro.”
David Cronenberg seems to have made a film that looks not just at US cultures, but all cultures, while never really making his intentions or ideas known. This isn’t some film that puts him on a soapbox. I didn’t see an allegory to Iraq or any of the other conflicts that are ravaging our world. Quite simply, he has made a film that is about people discovering something about themselves. About how we live our lives one way, and then something happens, and they become something else regardless of anything we can or cannot do. Then, when we try and figure it all out, this process and what comes out of it seems to be what interests the director most.
I particularly enjoyed the way this movie was paced. It didn’t linger too long on anything and was never really explicit in any way. It told the story it had to tell, it would stop off and deal with characters on a case by case basis, but there was nothing about this movie that seemed to play tricks or employ “red herrings.” Cronenberg just presented the ideas as they came up, and that is why this film had such an effect on me. The story didn’t flip everything around at the last minute, midway through or at all really. It showed us people whose lives become effected and how they respond to it. In a day and age when most movies seem to be subservient to many things other than the story, A History of Violence happily sets itself apart by being both a contemporary American-type film, and a Western of sorts where horses give way to cars, villains don’t always wear black and saloons have become family diners where ruckuses break out and are still settled by the cold, hard push of a trigger.