Combustible Celluloid
 
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With: Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, William Hurt, Ed Harris, Ashton Holmes, Heidi Hayes, Stephen McHattie, Greg Bryk, Peter MacNeill
Written by: Josh Olson, based on the graphic novel by John Wagner, Vince Locke
Directed by: David Cronenberg
MPAA Rating: R for strong brutal violence, graphic sexuality, nudity, language and some drug use
Running Time: 96
Date: 05/16/2005
IMDB

A History of Violence (2005)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Violence Begets Violence

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

With his new film, A History of Violence, David Cronenberg has joked that he is "selling out." In other words, he has taken a pre-existing job as a director-for-hire. Not that anyone could ever tell the difference; A History of Violence reveals itself as yet another masterpiece from this master director.

As Cronenberg matures as a filmmaker, it becomes more and more difficult to "fit" his films in with the preconceived outline of him. Most of his films up to now have dealt with issues of the body and the idea of introducing foreign elements to it. He is often considered a "horror" director, and indeed some of his early films rank among the best the genre has ever conceived. But with Spider and now A History of Violence, a new tack is in order.

Based on a graphic novel by writer John Wagner and artist Vince Locke, the new film stars Viggo Mortensen as Tom Stall, a small town man who runs the local diner. He's married to the lovely Edie (Maria Bello) and they have two teenage kids, Jack (Ashton Holmes) and Sarah (Heidi Hayes). Tom and Edie are a couple for which life has happened pretty fast, but they've taken it in stride and struggle to make the best of everything. In one amazingly tender scene, they try to re-capture a bit of their early romance when Edie seduces her husband by donning a cheerleader outfit.

Of course, we know that this bliss can't last. Long before we meet the Stalls, Cronenberg begins his film with a stunning, sustained tracking shot that introduces us to a couple of seedy lowlifes, seemingly on a weary road trip in a convertible. As they go through the motions of checking out of a little motel, we learn that they have very casually slaughtered the entire staff. Like any great filmmaker should, Cronenberg keeps the shot going until it needs to end, with a shocking, horrifying cut.

When these killers arrive at Tom's diner and begin threatening the locals, Tom reacts with surprising, swift violence. Many directors have attempted scenes much like this, with the beats landing exactly where you might expect them to, and with shaky camerawork to emphasize the chaos and confusion of the moment. Cronenberg tackles the scene as if for the first time, inventing new beats, and allowing moments to linger or jump up unexpectedly.

Tom becomes a local hero, but attracts the attention of more, even tougher-looking guys, notably the creepy Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris), who wears dark sunglasses to cover his disturbingly damaged eye. Thus the plot unfolds, and it becomes clear that Tom isn't who he seems; he has a whole past that has successfully been covered up and forgotten until now. One more note along these lines: William Hurt turns up late in the film as Tom's brother, he gives one of his finest, most delightful scenery-chewing turns.

Cronenberg ramps up the tension one more notch by giving Tom's son Jack a bully at school. Jack attracts the bully's attention by catching a potential home run ball during gym class. With this and with every other tense sequence in the film, the director bangs out a totally unique rhythm causing us to become immersed in the violence, and to be aware of it.

In a stroke of genius, Cronenberg clearly and shockingly underlines the "violence-begets-violence" theme by including a second love scene, far less tender than the first (to say the least).

Nearly anyone could make a film about violence, but A History of Violence becomes Cronenbergian, at the moment Tom's brother asks, "When you dream, are you still Joey?" -- referring to Tom's past life. The film suggests that, though we are flesh and blood, that very same flesh and blood can conceal any number of actions, identities, histories or beliefs. Even when making love to a longtime partner, the flesh need not necessarily reveal its hidden nature.

The trick that Cronenberg really pulls off here -- and has been successfully pulling off the whole time -- is that he makes this stuff move with a breath of life. His art is disguised within genre conventions, but they're singularly interesting genre conventions. He fools you into thinking you've seen something exciting or thrilling, but he really got you to think about something more.

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