A History of Violence is one of the better movies of 2005, from one of the few directors left who imbues his films with a distinctive persona. In the middle 1970s David Cronenberg seemed like a tricky young horrorphile concerned with extreme effects and gory ideas. He shared a television interview (included on the Criterion DVD of Videodrome) with directors John Carpenter and John Landis; all three were engaged in making bloody horror films. Of the three, only Cronenberg has consistently had 'something to say.' He made the best Stephen King adaptation in The Dead Zone and proved with his brilliant re-thinking of The Fly that his 70s obsession with grotesque bodily mutations was a relevant theme. His later work has maintained a high level of intelligence while exploring a variety of bizarre, but always human, concepts.
Starting as an 'Everyman' tale, A History of Violence then takes a sideways detour, becoming an exploration of man-as-monster through the story of one very atypical man caught between two radically different identities. I'll try to review the picture without spoiling anything about it; if you haven't seen it yet and want some good surprises, don't even view a trailer. Knowing anything in advance will hurt the film's impact.
When David Cronenberg makes a film called A History of Violence we sit up and take notice; we know he's not going to be shallow or evasive. And if Cronenberg elects to tell his story with extreme content (he almost always does), he'll involve us in some way that goes beyond simple exploitation.
We expect a metaphor. Cronenberg's earlier horror films had us questioning the meaning of our own bodies and challenging our disgust with their inner workings. He invented surreal artificial organs and strange mutations that mirror people's psychological states, and mapped out a horrible transformation from man into monster as a process comparable to the onset of a cancer. He questioned why we consider some bodily functions and parts beautiful, and others revolting.
So we expect Cronenberg's story of small-town violence to have larger implications. We've already had plenty of movies tell us that men are really savages; that's the only real message in thousands of cynical thrillers proffering disturbing (entertaining) violence. In this case Josh Olson's script (from a graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke) tells us that we we're wrong if we think that violence is some outside force; it comes from inside.
We accept the killers that show up at Stall's café because we've seen them in a million entertainments, from The Killers to any number of slaughter-chic pictures by the imitators of Quentin Tarantino. Movies about hired assassins or vagabond mass murderers are legion, while shows about people running small-town shops are naturally not as popular. It's interesting to note that when the second group of threatening men enters Tom's café, we at first can't tell if they're bad guys or simply 'cool' government agents, the kind of mythical über-men that solemnly solve crimes and fight evil in movies or TV.
Tom defends his employees and becomes a hero, and his name and picture are splashed across TV screens and the front pages of newspapers. The notoriety brings him more trouble.
The film touches on several options, which thankfully do not turn out to be its main theme. The media isn't very considerate of Tom, but they can't be blamed for his troubles. Evading the police doesn't become a big theme, as the movie is not about guilt, but responsibility. Tom's Edie is an experienced attorney, as opposed to a Simp Wife looking to Tom for reassurance or guidance. When she determines that something's wrong with their relationship, her frustrated accusations are clearly expressed and free of hysteria.
(Note that I'm trying to stay away from the plot. Readers might want to see A History of Violence before reading anyway, but there should be no direct spoilers here).
The story's main twist may seem like a cheat, and I'm not so sure that it isn't. We're all set up to accompany Tom through an ordeal like Henry Fonda's in The Wrong Man, or Humphrey Bogart's in In a Lonely Place. He goes through a test of his character and worries that he's been changed, in this case, that his association with violence makes him a different person to his family. That theme is almost touched upon in the movie Cape Fear: When Gregory Peck battles Robert Mitchum's evil monster to the death, we wonder if Polly Bergen will fear her husband's newfound proven facility with violence. Or did she know it was there all along? Or will she secretly wish he'd stop being so holy and play the brute once in a while?
Cronenberg chooses instead to tell a crime version of a sub-theme in his The Fly: Is Tom a peaceful family man forced to become a killer, or is he a killer who once dreamed he was a family man? It's a problem of identity. 1
I have to say that I don't think A History of Violence succeeds in all of its aims. Audiences drawn to the graphic violence can be expected to ignore the soap opera problems while reveling in Tom's newfound ability to overpower and slay professional killers. The film isn't the knee-jerk counter-savagery of Death Wish, but Tom's story plays too much like a standard Samurai film or Billy Jack or any movie with exciting vigilante violence: The action itself is arresting, 'charismatic.' Men identify with it and ask themselves if they could perform such lethal acts.
Cronenberg states that he wants to 'implicate' us in Tom's crimes, and to some extent he does, but the fact remains that the violence stays fairly tidy. Only one member of Tom's family is ever directly threatened and none of them are changed by the blood and gore (unless we count young Jack's instant conversion to a high school Bruce Lee). The bad guys consistently underestimate Tom. We end up with the same fantasy character from exploitation thrillers -- Tom is the unstoppable action dervish. It goes against A History of Violence forming a credible reality.
The film shows the immediate results of violence quite well -- people who are shot or struck hard are left mangled and mutilated. But they're all dead; there are no lingering agonies and the one painful recovery shown is not dwelt upon. We don't even have to deal with the messy clean up. One bloodbath disappears neatly from Tom's front lawn, as if the cops and emergency crews had taken away the trash. The complete police response to this second Peckinpah/Scorsese/Tarantino episode is one local sheriff bashfully asking some personal questions. If Fogarty is a dangerous mobster from out of state, we'd expect to see dozens of local, state and federal crime investigators asking Tom questions and digging into his background.
On the emotional level Cronenberg's film works very well. We wait in anticipation and dread for some horrible injustice to befall Tom and his family. Tom's attempt to re-connect with his wife through sex is surprisingly effective. His son's high school corridor transformation seems a bit schematic, even though kids absorbing and acting out the conflicts of their parents happens all the time. The father-son linkage through violence echoes the even more schematic finale of River of No Return -- and has a solid emotional effect.
Frankly, any sane man in Tom's position would hide his family in a different town and ask for serious police protection. A History of Violence has a good excuse for that if Tom is in denial, and fearful of bringing more attention to himself.
Cronenberg's production has a precision of effect and an artistic economy that are pleasing to watch. He's particularly good with character interaction. Tom and Edie are a convincing couple. The film's scenes of violence are technically adroit. The camera never flinches or hides the gory details -- but it doesn't dwell on them either. I don't know if his gross-out moments are really shocking, however. There's a world of violent media available out there, and most of it is aimed at a particular segment of the audience spectrum. I can't help feeling that the sensitive souls capable of fully appreciating Cronenberg's ideas, would not be interested in sitting through such violent scenes. The movie wants us to question the violence inside us, but its ultimate message is the same carried by any fear-mongering picture: Go buy a gun, lock the door and act as if today might be the day that somebody sticks a shotgun in your face.
The cast is truly fine. Viggo Mortensen is a strong actor perfectly chosen for his ambivalence. He's a straight-arrow good guy but we can easily perceive a darker underside. He reminds us a bit of James Woods. Maria Bello holds up her difficult role and its complex reactions -- she loves Tom even when she's afraid of him. Of the film's two male threats William Hurt got the Oscar nomination with his expert and eccentric turn (no giveaways here) but I'd have put Ed Harris up for the prize first. He's nothing short of spectacular in his menace - his goblin makeup job doesn't seem overdone. Cronenberg is less accomplished a director with kids and teens. The school scenes are never more than adequate. Ashton Holmes is satisfactory in a not-completely-fleshed-out part.
New Line's Platinum Series DVD of A History of Violence is an excellent transfer that flatters Peter Suschitzky's cinematography. David Cronenberg offers an engaging commentary that's perfectly willing to discuss this film and others on an analytical basis. Once we listen to this thoughtful man, we're willing to give any of his pictures a second look.
The extras are neatly assembled from thorough on-set coverage and interviews with cast and filmmakers. Even pros like Hurt and Harris cooperate fully with publicity for Cronenberg's film -- he's a director that actors respect. The multi-part docu is a much better than average making-of show -- nobody tells us simply how talented somebody else is. Cronenberg comes off as a gentle man of ideas well-versed in getting what he wants from actors, and the crew really seems enamored of him.
The "three riveting featurettes" touted on the package fixate on sidebar topics. We see the elaborate deleted scene filmed and finished, and hear why the director yanked it out. The EPK camera follows Cronenberg and his stars to Cannes for the first big screening of the picture. An examination of the film's 'rougher' international version reveals that the difference is just two brief, slightly gorier cuts.
The trailer is a terrible spoiler and it's a shame that it was shown to theater audiences. This movie needed a graphic sell barely showing anything from the film.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
A History of Violence rates:
1. Which reminds Savant of House on Telegraph Hill, a noir that completely bungles a similar theme. Valentina Cortesa plays a concentration camp victim who fakes an identity and starts a completely new, false life in San Francisco. About 3/4 of the way through she finally admits to her lover that her entire identity is a fraud. Both the lover and the movie just accept that fact and move on ... as if her admission (and by extension, the past) means nothing, not even emotionally.