Movie review by Greg Carlson
On the surface, David Cronenberg’s “A History of Violence” plays out like a conventional thriller steeped in the tradition of the American Western. Cronenberg – despite the charges that his filmmaking is often cold, detached, and clinical – has always been fascinated by the significant measure of awful things people do to each other and to themselves, so it will come as no surprise to fans of the director that “A History of Violence” offers more than initially meets the eye. Far less weird than many of the director’s signature films, “A History of Violence” still packs quite a punch, particularly with its often dizzying treatment of the title subject.
Set largely in the small town utopia of Millbrook, Indiana, “A History of Violence” introduces the Stall family: patriarch Tom (Viggo Mortenson), his beautiful wife Edie (Maria Bello), and their children Jack (Ashton Holmes) and Sarah (Heidi Hayes). Cronenberg wastes no time in psychologically linking the Stalls to something wicked in the air – Sarah’s nightmare-induced scream follows a prologue in which two cold-blooded killers hit the road following grisly multiple murders. Cronenberg’s careful, deliberate pacing of the film’s early scenes establishes the queasy realization that the bad men are destined to cross paths with Tom.
Once the roaming assassins appear at the diner Tom manages, Cronenberg stages the tense confrontation with an almost otherworldly combination of action, fear, adrenaline, and humor. The director has indicated in press for the film that one might indeed interpret the movie’s flashes of violence as absurdly funny, and part of this realization stems from the filmmaker’s decision to portray the violent moments without much of the ornamented, slow-motion stylization that accompanies so much of the mayhem audiences are accustomed to seeing on the screen. This is not to suggest that Cronenberg fails to fetishize the violence (the film has far too many gruesome aftermath close-ups to support that idea), but rather that care has been taken to involve the viewer in the consequences of the lethal outbursts that pepper the film.
Once Tom has been anointed a local celebrity for his curiously skillful actions at the diner, “A History of Violence” moves into high gear. Media attention on Tom’s heroics presumably brings about a visit from a trio of big city tough guys, led by disfigured Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris). Fogarty insists that he knows Tom, and Cronenberg relishes the blurring of past and present, as well as the real and the imagined. Tom’s very identity is called into question, and “A History of Violence” engages directly with the question of how Tom’s ability to commit ferocious acts of brutality and aggression test the loyalty and imagination of his wife and son.
In other words, Cronenberg is arguably more interested in what roles the Stall family will begin to assume following the suggestion that Tom is not who he says he is. In this context, “A History of Violence” earns high praise – particularly for the performance of Bello, whose own reaction to Tom’s identity crisis walks a tightrope fraught with anxiety, revulsion, and – surprisingly to herself – deep attraction. By the time Cronenberg arrives at the iconic illustration of domesticity that provides the film’s coda, as many questions have been raised as have been answered. One thing is known, however: “A History of Violence” is a forceful and sharp piece of filmmaking.
This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 10/3/05.