October 3, 2005

A History of Violence4 1/2 Stars

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A young, mussy man waits outside of a motel, smoking a cigarette in a midnight blue corvette. An older, weasel-like friend exits the motel, hops into the car, and the two prepare to take off. Water. They are out of water. The young man goes back into the hotel to get some. The camera follows him along the grubby corridor until he gets to the front desk, where he skirts around the bloody corpses of the motel clerk and a maid. He fills up the water jug, returns to the car, and the two men accelerate down the road in their sleek navy convertible.

David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence is patterned by this type of ugly hybridization, juxtaposing the quiescent and the disrupting, the commonplace and the extraordinarily violent. At the center of the maelstrom is one man who just wants to lead a normal life, but who won’t be left alone. The cyclone of violence tears across his life, rips the roof off of the existence that he worked so hard to build, and exposes rooms which could never before be seen.

Viggo Mortensen plays Tom Stall, a “family man” who leads the perfect life in Small Town, Indiana. He spends his time comforting his little girl when she has nightmares, giving baseball advice to his teenage son, tending to the diner that he owns, and smooching his wife (Maria Bello) in the time in between. The relative tranquility of his life is abruptly disrupted one day, when two criminals, the ones who robbed the motel, enter his diner and hold the occupants up at gunpoint. Tom thinks and acts quickly, expressing great dexterity in disarming one of the criminals, and shoots the two miscreants. He is immediately hailed as a hero, and after a quick stay in the hospital, he goes home to his family and comfortable normality.

Things get more complicated when Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris) enters Tom’s life. Fogarty and his cronies enter his diner one day, referring to him as “Joey Cusack” and claiming that he is from Philadelphia. Tom and his wife Edie express puzzlement and deny this strange accusation. What should be merely a bizarre incident assumes greater severity when Fogarty stalks Tom and his family around town escalating into an armed standoff that occurs at Tom’s house, Edie begins to suspect her husband. Why were these men so insistent that Tom was “Joey Cusack,” and why Tom’s violent streak? Edie’s suspicions soon crystallize into a deeper understanding – the horrible realization that her husband may not the person she thought she knew. Tom is forced to confront the skeletons of his past, despite his greatest attempts to forever bury them.

The film is expertly directed and wonderfully acted by the entire cast. If there was any doubt as to the future of Mortensen’s career or of his acting chops, there should be none now. The film’s cinematography maintains a gritty and low-key (there are lots of browns and grays) feel to the film, which heightens the reality and properly places the violence in the dirty setting where it belongs. The film is not simply an exploitation of violence or a plot-oriented mystery – it is a meditation on the effects of violence and on one man’s quest for redemption.

Some may feel that it contrives a message addressing the issue of redemption, but it does not. It presents the idea, and while the characters do lean one way in the end, it asks the audience to decide; indeed, the movie ends with a virtual question mark. A History of Violence is one of those rare films that addresses a complex issue, but refuses to reduce it, leaving it at the plate with all of its subjective wholeness for us chew on.

Archived article by Terry Fedigan
Sun Contributor