|A History of Violence|
|Written by Mel Odom|
|Tuesday, 14 March 2006|
“A History of Violence” began life as a graphic novel written and drawn by John Wagner and Vince Locke. When it was picked up and turned into a movie directed by David Cronenberg in 2005, “A History of Violence” arguably became one of the best movies of that year. The DVD case even advertises that the feature hit over 150 Top Ten lists.
At its heart, “A History of Violence” is about a man who gets caught up in events far beyond his own control and ends up struggling with his private demons. Since a man’s war within himself never truly stays within that private battle zone, it spills over onto his family. This family is an ordinary family, not trained to deal with the maelstrom that’s about to hit their lives and shatter everything they thought they knew.
This review comes with a spoiler warning. Viewers who have already seen the film can read on freely, but those who haven’t seen it and want to remain surprised by the twists and turns of the plot will be warned away further down in the review.
“A History of Violence” is a remarkable film, one that truly earns the label gut-wrenching. A savvy movie watcher will guess at twists and turns the plot and the characters take. Maybe that movie watcher will be both right and wrong. The acting and the resonance the film brings to the viewing experience will blow away even someone who guesses right.
This is truly one of Viggo Mortensen’s most superb films. He plays Tom Stall with quiet dignity, presenting him as a man anyone would want to meet and admire. Maria Bello plays Tom’s wife Edie with a combination of earthy sexuality and protective mother that seems to be the epitome of an empowered woman. It’s their relationship that gets delineated onscreen the most, the one that draws us in most intently.
Director David Cronenberg and screenwriter Josh Olson offer up a polished jewel with this film. The simplicity of the characters, the scenes, the background and the action drives the film every minute. The ease with which Cronenberg moves the story along, the way that the background information seeps in so naturally, the fact that the scenes never overpower the character interaction is so understated that most viewers will probably forget the movie was directed. It all seems natural, even the violence.
The musical score is also simple, not – for a change of pace – fed off today’s Top 40. The music becomes a force throughout the scenes where it is used, which is astonishingly seldom. Most of the time, the action, the sound of a door closing or keys jangling or cars passing, is the only background noise to a given scene. The audio portion of the film gives credence to the belief we are actually peering in at a family’s life.
Chapter 1 begins on a low-key level that escalates with the explosive surprise of an unexpected left hook. Two men walk out of a cheap motel. There’s no music, just the usual sounds of a door closing, boots hitting the pavement and quiet, abbreviated conversation between the men. In the car, the radio is barely audible, playing an undercurrent of country and western music that almost gets drowned out by the engine noise. A truck passes on an unseen highway, speeding by from right to left and putting us at that Anywhere Motel. Birds chirp. It’s a normal day. Then the older man sends the younger one in for some cold water from the cooler. As the young man enters the office, he methodically goes through the payphone for change and checks out the postcards. Then the blood on the desk is shown, hinting at what really took place when the first man checked out. The gurgling cooler sounds so normal after seeing the dead bodies that it’s horrifying in the quiet when a little girl opens the door and looks at the young man. He drops to his knees so he won’t scare her, then takes out a pistol and fires a single round. In six minutes and three seconds, the hook is set, as we want to see these two men get what’s coming to them.
Young Sarah Stall (Heidi Hayes) screams in bed at the beginning of Chapter 2. The entire family, father Tom, mother Edie and brother Jack (Ashton Holmes), comes to the rescue. In just this short scene, the closeness of the Stalls is revealed in a manner that will be familiar to most families. The quiet breakfast the next morning, again without a music track, complements the initial introduction. The conversation at the breakfast table, just like the exchanges between the killers, is brief and everyday. Later, Tom walks through town and everyone knows his name. As he cleans the debris from in front of his diner, it’s obvious that he takes pride in what he does.
Chapter 3 focuses on Jack as he deals with a bully on the softball field. That encounter continues into Chapter 4, when Jack uses his wits to get himself out of a jam. The thing that seems to throw the bully off is that Jack really isn’t afraid; he just knows he can’t beat him in a fight. Later, Edie waits for Tom and picks him up after work. Tom and Edie go back home. The image of Tom, knowing that Edie has something special planned, is endearing. When Edie shows up in her old cheerleader outfit, the scene changes tone to sexual in a heartbeat. Later, Jack hangs out with his girlfriend, and his view on life is definitely different than how he lives at home. A passing car slams the subwoofer for just a moment as it passes from left to right through the surround sound system. The bully is on the scene, but a near miss with the killers gets him to tuck his tail between his legs and save his promise of violence to Jack for another day.
The action turns down and dirty in Chapter 5 as the killers pick Tom’s diner to rob. Tom is going to give them anything they want, but they decide to rape the waitress after he tried to get her clear of the confrontation. Tom acts with smooth confidence, going on the offensive and killing both men without hesitation.
The media seizes the story in Chapter 6. Tom sits in a room all by himself, obviously distressed by how much attention the story is receiving. Outside, he gets a hero’s welcome. At home, Tom finds a news reporter waiting at his front yard. Later, the menace quietly settles in as Edie spots a mysterious black car sitting across the street from the house.
In Chapter 7, an admiring town crowd packs the seats at Tom’s diner. Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris), dressed all in black and looking like pure threat, arrives and starts calling Tom “Joey Cusack.” Tom comes across mild and meek, insisting that he’s not who Fogarty thinks he is. Fogarty reveals a dead eye and a horrible scar beneath his sunglasses. The menace gradually cranks up as Fogarty won’t go away, even after Edie gets involved. Later, the sheriff – summoned by Edie – braces Fogarty and his men on their way out of town, getting their names and warning them off. After running background checks, the sheriff tells Tom and Edie that Fogarty is an organized crime figure, and that he couldn’t find anything on a Joey Cusack, but he found out that Richie Cusack is a syndicate boss. He asks Tom if he’s in witness protection, and Tom tells him no, that he’s just a guy and Fogarty is mistaking him for someone else. The sound of the rain as the sheriff leaves is constant, just like the dread that has entered the lives of the Stall family.
Chapter 8 shows Tom coming apart at the seams. He walks to work because his truck still isn’t running. While he’s there, he sees Fogarty’s car out front. Fearing that Fogarty and his men are going to harm his family, Tom runs home, scaring Edie and Jack. Edie grabs and loads the shotgun at Tom’s insistence, and the music that underscores the scene is soft and dramatic, amping up the fear level in a subtle way. Tom arrives but the killers don’t. Jack asks him what they’d do if the killers had arrived. Tom says they would have dealt with it.
Fogarty turns up the pressure in Chapter 9 by stalking Edie and Sarah at the mall. Again, the quiet everyday noises going on around the action without an accompanying music track actually helps suspend disbelief. This feels real. The car that slides by behind Edie moves from right to left through the surround sound system, then Fogarty’s car snarls like some monstrous beast in the center speaker as it brakes to a halt to fill the screen. After Edie finds that Sarah has wandered off and Fogarty is watching her daughter, she reacts like a mother wolf, snarling and snapping at the mob guy. Fogarty goes on talking anyway, asking her why it was so easy for Tom to kill those men, and showing her his ruined eye, telling her that Joey did that.
Chapter 10 shows Jack at school. He’s forced into a fight. The violence there is quick and brutal, coming too naturally to him. Later, at home, Tom talks to Jack, ends up losing his temper and slaps his son. That slap reverberates in the surround sound system with no other sound audible. Edie arrives after that and tells Tom what happened at the mall
Fogarty arrives with Jack in Chapter 11. He offers to let Jack go if Tom will agree to return with him to Philadelphia. Tom sends Edie away and approaches the men while unarmed. When Jack is clear of the area, Tom changes. The viewer sees the mask slip. In a heartbeat, forced by circumstance beyond his control, Tom is Joey again. The fight is swift and bloody, and in seconds Tom has left dead men stretched on his lawn. He’s saved from Fogarty by Jack. The scene when Tom – his face stained by blood – takes is son into his arms is phenomenal, proving again how powerful the film medium is.
In Chapter 12, Edie demands the truth and turns out to be unprepared for what Tom has to tell her. He was Joey, but he walked away from that life 20 years ago.
The friction with Tom’s family builds to a breaking point in Chapter 13, all without the aid of music. The tension comes in the words and actions of the actors, bringing us into their world and letting us suffer along with the Stalls. Then Richie Cusack (William Hurt) calls, telling Tom he should come see him in Philly, setting up the final arc of the bloody action that ensues.
The extras on the movie are lean, but they’re good. The “Acts of Violence” documentary offers keen insight into the characters, as well as the violence that takes place in the film. The featurette concerning the differences between the U.S. version and the international version is interesting. The Cannes featurette gives some cool background on the film and the director. But “The Unmaking of Scene 44,” detailing the special effects for that scene, is most awesome.
“A History of Violence” is definitely not a family film. It’s one of the few truly adult films made in 2005, and it excels in deep characterization, truly motivated action and violence, and a plot that is at once simple, easy to follow and surprising. For viewers who have been missing out on action flicks in the theaters, this one’s a keeper for the collection. People who missed the film during its tour of the theaters, who want something driving and engrossing, pick this one up for a night’s rental when the kids are out. The DVD might just turn into one that finds its way into several home movie collections.