A History of Violence

October, 2005, Drama

Directed by:David Cronenberg

Starring:Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, Ed Harris, and William Hurt

Canadian director David Cronenberg has consistently demonstrated a taste for bizarre subjects and violent themes since his debut as a feature film director in 1975 with the gory vampire movie "Shivers". Working his way from main-stream horror/si-fi efforts such as "Scanners" and "The Dead Zone" to a deft re-make of Vincent Price's "The Fly", the director demonstrated larger talents and darker interests in 1988 when he released "Dead Ringers", surely one of the strangest and most disquieting movies ever made. He's now turned to the world of graphic novels for this grisly but disturbingly noir-ish examination of violent behavior and its impact on a close-knit family. 

Tom Stall, (Vigo Mortensen) operates a diner in a small Indiana town. He and his wife Edie (Maria Bello) share their comfortable house with teenage son Jack and a pre-school age daughter named Sarah. When Tom's heroism during an armed robbery attempt in his restaurant brings him some unexpected publicity, he gets a quietly menacing visit from Carl Fogarty, (Ed Harris) a member of organized crime from Philadelphia who insists that Tom's really a long-estranged gangster from that city named Joey Cusack. Tom seems bewildered by this accusation, but when Fogarty and his bodyguards arrive at Tom's home to forcibly take him back east, he again demonstrates a capacity for sudden, if understandable, violence. As Edie struggles to come to terms with her growing suspicions, she loses confidence in her husband while son Jack lashes out at a bully who's been tormenting him at school. As the impact of Tom's violence ripples through his family, each individual's stress finds its outlet in precisely the kind of conduct they ostensibly abhor, inducing a wave of shame and still further deterioration in their inter-personal relationships. Since further escalation appears to be the only way out, what's Tom to do? 

Using this hard-boiled format, Cronenberg explores the impact of physical violence on both perpetrator and victim, raising questions about whether the capacity for it can ever excised from the human psyche or if the damage done can be effectively left behind. The director suggests we drag the evil we do around with us throughout our lives, always hostage to its sudden, unpleasant re-emergence; his painfully ambiguous closing shot perfectly demonstrates that point. 

Shrewdly employing the near-comic book form from which Cronenberg takes his material, "Violence" has the look and feel of a gritty, low-budget 40's thriller, employing straight-forward cinematography replete with the grisly visual shocks that have become the director's trademark. The camera trails a meandering station wagon down a bucolic country road only to slide over it's top at a parking lot to examine the menacingly   

dark windows of a gangster's limousine nearby. Tom and Edie make love with gymnastic enthusiasm while the camera records their activity with remarkable clarity and an admirable reserve not found in most contemporary movies. Even the sudden explosions of violence visually seduce the audience while simultaneously underscoring the film's subversive message; you get a visceral thrill from the mayhem, experiencing the characters' disgust with it, only to be led down the same sucker-punched path once again.

As Tom, Mortensen finally gets the opportunity to demonstrate his range as an actor. After spending an eternity starring in "The Ring" trilogy and then racing ridiculously across the Sahara in "Hidalgo, he gets the chance to demonstrate the appealing menace he first displayed in the otherwise forgettable "G.I. Jane". Here he's attractive and frightening at one and the same time, sympathetic and repelling in turn. It's a tightly controlled performance; screenwriters John Wagner and Vince Locke wisely keep Stall's terse dialogue to an absolute minimum. Why use words in an attempt to explore the motivations of someone who doesn't understand them himself? As Edie, Bello once again demonstrates the charm and sexiness she's previously displayed in such films as "The Cooler" and "Silver City". Few actresses of her generation manage to combine the same sense of intelligence, strength and feminine allure; she's attractive without being exactly beautiful, forceful but not pushy, erotic but never tawdry. May she continue to get parts like this that allow her delicious complexity to shine so effectively. Ed Harris' Fogarty sports a horrifically scarred face and low-rent brogue to chilling effect while William Hunt nearly steals the movie in a brief role as a gangster pivotal to the plot's resolution. 

If you can stand the high body count, this one's an exciting and thought-provoking ride--but don't take children or those weak of stomach.    



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