Tom Stall: "In this family, we do not solve problems by hitting people!"
Jack Stall: "No, in this family, we shoot them!"
David Cronenberg can be a provocative moviemaker, and few directors working today are capable of scaring us the way he can. 2005's A History of Violence does for crime what Cronenberg's horror films did for fleshy parasites and shape-shifting creatures, and that scares the hell out of us. The basis of the story is a graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke, and much of the movie dwells on the moment-by-moment unfolding of sickeningly violent scenarios. Star Viggo Mortensen continued with Cronenberg for the equally impressive Eastern Promises, a gangster film that placed Mortensen in a brutal death struggle in a tiled bathhouse, naked. It's as if the director and actor decided they had something more to say about killing before moving on.
Although we're all exposed to violence as entertainment, we're shocked when it affects us personally. A History of Violence tells the story of Tom Stall (Mortensen), the proprietor of a small lunch counter in Indiana assaulted by a pair of very dangerous killers. The scene is a modern extrapolation of the situation in the classic Hemingway story The Killers -- two fairly ordinary patrons suddenly become menacing, and nobody knows how to react.
The surprise is that Stall knows too well how to react. Just as the bad men are about to unleash a bloodbath, Stall leaps into action, dispatching both of them with breathtakingly efficient brutality. It's ugly and messy, but Tom has turned a potential disaster into a victory. He becomes an instant hero, a symbol of good guys everywhere who want to fight back.
The problem is that Tom's character doesn't match his actions. He's been a gentle "townie" for years, and his intelligent wife Edie (Maria Bello) can't believe he's the kind of guy who can thwart two experienced killers carrying guns and knives. Tom claims that his reactions just came out of the blue, that he only did what he had to do. He's as shocked as Edie is.
Almost immediately, Philadelphia hood Carl Fogerty (Ed Harris) shows up in town, convinced that Tom is somebody named Joey and refusing to take no for an answer. Tensions mount at the Stall house as Edie begins to question her husband's identity. Tom's son Jack (Ashton Holmes) undergoes a behavior change as well ... instead of taking grief from bullies at high school, he decides to start dishing it out. The pressure shows on Tom, finally: Is he an innocent victim of other people's fears, or someone other than who he claims he is?
In David Cronenberg's 1986 remake of The Fly, a scientist transformed into a monster ponders his Kafka-derived dilemma. Maybe he's an insect and is only dreaming that he was once human. Unnerved by his experience with up-close killing, Tom Stall has difficulty deciding what his real nature is. A History of Violence may be about a metamorphosis induced by extreme conditions, or it may simply be the story of a man who has denied his true nature. Either way, Cronenberg is back on his home turf, content-wise: inside ordinary people hide monsters. A History of Violence demonstrates more than a few horrible ways one person can disable, maim or kill another at close quarters.
Monster or human, Tom Stall is a schizophrenic character. Cronenberg emphasizes the immediacy of the relationships in A History of Violence: once Edie Stall begins to doubt her husband, a tension grows that can only be released in aggression. Tom lashes out when he thinks Edie's being unfair to him, and Cronenberg stages their conflict as a domestic sex scene-assault on a set of very painful-looking wooden stairs. Cronenberg tries not to flinch at awkwardness or pain; the movie is a series of confrontations, each more threatening than the last.
The graphic-novel plotting puts a burden on credibility that Cronenberg's good direction can't always sustain. The legal response to the later developments becomes almost laughable, especially with organized crime involved; we'd have to believe that dozens of lawmen, agents, attorneys and reporters would be hounding Tom. He's able to move about without being investigated, something that seems very unlikely.
A History of Violence is more complex than a revenge fantasy or a fascistic vigilante exploitationer, yet it sells the same wares. The bad guys menace and kill innocents, even children, thereby "qualifying" to receive heavy doses of retribution. Our killer hero is still a magical dervish who prevails in decidedly hairy situations, an action hero to be admired. The only difference is that the director doesn't let us root for Tom without flinching at every blow struck and recoiling at every new demonstration of lethal force. Cronenberg uses his keen directing skills to make us feel every broken bone and gouged eye.
Cronenberg is excellent with his adult actors but doesn't fare that well with his younger cast members. Tom Stall's daughter isn't very convincing and the school scenes with young Jack seem perfunctory and flat. Viggo Mortensen and Maria Bello are extremely good, while Ed Harris intimidates through grotesque facial makeup. Supporting actor William Hurt makes his Oscar-nominated impression in only a few minutes of footage. His part can't be described without spoiling the plot.
A History of Violence reunites some of Cronenberg's faithful collaborators: cameraman Peter Suschitsky, designer Carol Spier and composer Howard Shore. The movie has wonderful art direction -- we want to have some pie and coffee at Tom Stall's 100% Americana lunch counter, and even a detail as small as the pattern of painted bricks in a motel wall adds an uneasy quality to the first scene. Cronenberg's "action" scenes are swift, clean and savage. We see it all happen, without editorial tricks, and every punch, jab and gunshot delivers a kick.
New Line's Blu-ray of A History of Violence is the expected crisp and bright experience in HD. The added detail makes eyes more readable in medium shots, and close-ups feel like the characters are in the room with us. In more than a few ways -- and especially in terms of convenience -- the home theater experience is now better than going to the movies.
Most of the extras are repeated from the DVD special edition of three years ago, starting with a director's commentary. Cronenberg comes off as both thoughtful and principled, an intelligent artist who cares about his movies. One featurette focuses on the re-editing of scenes to excise a couple of violent details, and another shows the director getting ready for a premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. Acts of Violence is a multi-part making-of docu with plenty of input from the film's director and stars. A deleted nightmare scene is present in its entirety along with the movie's original trailer, a spoiler-laden bad idea if there ever was one. It's too bad that graphics-oriented trailers are no longer in vogue, as A History of Violence could have used an ad campaign that gives away nothing.
Leland, one of the despicable killers from the film's opening, is played by the accomplished actor Stephen McHattie, soon to be seen as Nite Owl in the much anticipated Watchmen.
reviews online at DVD Savant