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Movie Review: A History of Violence

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Canadian director David Cronenberg (Scanners, Dead Ringers, The Fly) takes a stab at a mainstream film with A History of Violence, based on the graphic novels by John Wagner and Vince Locke. Like most Cronenberg films, A History of Violence explores human nature when confronted with extreme violence. Unfortunately, it’s an effort that mostly fails.

(Spoilers follow)

Viggo Mortensen is Tom Stall, who is known to most everyone in the small Indiana town he lives in. He runs a diner and knows his customers by name. Stall is also a family man, with wife Edie (Maria Bello), son Jack (Ashton Holmes) and daughter Sarah (Heidi Hayes).

Mortensen plays Stall as a quiet man, friendly with his customers and a loving father. One day at his diner, as he’s closing up for the night, two men come in, demanding service. Stall informs the duo the diner is closed, but agrees to serve them coffee and pie. That’s when all hell breaks lose, as the men attempt to rob the diner. They do not succeed; with the skill of a trained hitman, Stall quickly kills the two would-be robbers, and becomes a hero.

It’s not long after the incident at the diner when a trio of men show up. Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris), with a twisting scar running down from his left eye, sits down at the counter and speaks to Stall. He appears to know Stall, except by a different name: Joey Cusack, from Philadelphia, a mob hitman. Stall denies that he is Cusack.

As these moments unfold, the pacing of the film is very slow. I’m not sure what Cronenberg is aiming at — perhaps to emulate the slow pace of a small town. Cronenberg takes his time arriving at the moment when we learn that Stall is indeed Joey Cusack (after Stall takes out Fogarty and his men in a bloody shoot-out at Stall’s home).

And what are we to make of the film’s title? Cronenberg doesn’t offer any quick answers. We know that Stall has “a history of violence,” but Cronenberg suggests this sort of history is almost a genetic history. Stall’s son Jack has been hassled by bullies at his school, and one day just beats the hell out of the bully and the bully’s friend, sending the pair to the hospital. Is Cronenberg saying that Jack was able to beat the two bullies to a bloody pulp because of his father’s “history of violence?”

Of course, Stall’s wife Edie is horrified to learn of her husband’s past, as is his son, Jack. Who can blame them? What do you do when the person you know and love turns out to be someone else entirely? And how exactly would anyone go about the business of supressing their former selves? At least on this subject, the answer from Cronenberg is: you cannot.

Stall assures his wife that Joey Cusack died years ago, and that he’s Tom Stall. Edie isn’t buying it. She asks if Stall killed for money or for pleasure? Both, he says, as the two proceed into a violent argument that leads to violent love making.

As anyone who has seen a Cronenberg film knows, a quiet moment can very quickly escalate into bloody violence, and A History of Violence has many moments of bloody carnage. Perhaps in the past those moments of extreme violence might have shocked us, as viewers, but in this film, the bloody shoot-outs only serve to wake us up momentarily.

Did I mention the slow pace of this film? One could also say “boring” and be accurate.

In the climax, Stall heads to Philadelphia to confront his brother Richie (William Hurt). Hurt portrays Richie as lathargic as anyone else in the film. It’s not one of his better performances. Roger Ebert seemed to think it was a great performance on the part of Hurt. Maybe he saw a different film than I did? I’m not sure how else to explain Ebert’s four-star rating.

Do I need to even suggest that the film will end with more bloodshed? It does. And then it’s over. Leaving the theater I was thinking, “What the hell?”

Fans of Mortensen from his role as Aragon in the Lord of The Rings trilogy will be in for a bit of a surprise with his portrayal as Tom Stall. If you watched The Lord of The Rings with your family, this is certainly not a film to bring your children to, due to the graphic violence and a few sexual moments.

A big problem I had with A History of Violence was its complete lack of character development. Stall is presented to us basically through description, and his background as Joey Cuscack isn’t expored at all. Why did he leave Philadelphia? Why did he pick the name Tom Stall (“It was available” Stall tells his wife), and how exactly did he “kill” his other persona? Cronenberg offers no answers.

I suppose if this film is about anything, it’s about characters and their interaction with each other. There isn’t much in the way of a plot, so Cronenberg explores the idea of identity, territory he’s covered in the past (Dead Ringers). Are we the person we present to the outside world? Of course, people are more complex than that. And some are more complex than others.

** out of ****

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About scottcsmith

  • “his background as Joey Cuscack isn’t expored at all”

    I don’t think that matters. He chooses to be Tom. We get glimpses of who he was, but the real events and the real facts divert from who he wants to be.

  • Willie Moncur

    His background is that he’s a killer, who wanted to stop killing, leave his gangster family and live a normal life. I need know no more than this to understand his character. We see that he is capable of murder when the film opens.
    We don’t need to know how he came up with the name Tom Stall, or the methods he used to kill Joey in the desert, because you can see why, as the violence escalates in the film, that he doesn’t like killing anymore, no matter how good he is at doing it.

  • I’ll have to respectfully disagree with the posters. This is a character driven movie, not plot driven, and I’d expect some character development. There is none. Why isn’t his background explored? What led to his decision to “become” Tom? It’s simple to just say “he didn’t want to kill anymore.” Why? What was the motivation?
    Doesn’t it help a bit to understand a person and why they do the things to do? It’s not enough to just say “he was a killer” and have that explain away everything.

    Just my .02.

  • I reviewed this movie here on blogcritics last week and came to different conclusions. The movie is obviously about violence and absolution; that a man can one day turn around and change completely…or can he? The uneasiness after Mortenson dispatches the killers at the farm and then approaches his son does point toward the “nature v. nurture” argument; the way in which he sits down at the table in the end and the family quietly accepts him with fear and trepidation, without a resolution, is interesting.

    I enjoyed the slow pace, it built the tension readily and the movie was filmed beautifully. I give it a B.

  • Worst movie I’ve seen in the past 5 years.

    Senseless violence, a broken plot and an uneasy “rape” scene doesn’t make it “artsy” or “ironic.”

    Sometimes I wonder if movie critics try to pull too much out of a movie that was never there to begin with.

    Nice review, Scott.

  • Which scenes of violence were senseless?

  • Wallace,

    I don’t think Shall’s uneasiness following the killings at his diner had anything to do with his uneasiness for his actions. I think he was uneasy because the media attention would blow his cover, which it did. I got the impression that he enjoyed killing the thugs at his diner.

  • I was talking about the moment after he killed Ed Harris and his cronies at the farm. My take on that moment was that there was something primordial being brought out in him, and that it seemed like for a second there he wasn’t sure if his son was a rescuer or another attacker, having gone into the “zone” as it is called. The idea that a family man has a killer submerged within him is a fascinating one…soldiers…policemen…mob killers…people make peace with their violent side…or do they? I thought it was a decent movie. Certainly not the worst I’ve seen this year.

  • Robert R

    An absolutely horrible film. Clunky, laughable dialogue. Cartoonish characters (the school bully was more overdone than in in after-school special). And a pacing that made the movie seem 4 hours long. I can’t remember one redeeming scene, line, or performance. I laughed all the way out of the theater in disbelief at what I saw.

    I agree with the poster who wrote that sometimes critics try to see things that just aren’t there. Maybe it’s a fear of being the one guy who doesn’t get “the genius”.

  • Cole

    Is this movie really only based on a comic book?