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.
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 ****