Tuesday, April 2, 2019

A History of Violence

(2005) Directed by David Cronenberg; Written by Josh Olson; Based on the graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke; Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, Ed Harris, William Hurt, Ashton Holmes and Peter MacNeill; Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: ****

“…the audience is complicit in the violence, and then they have to be complicit in the results of it as well. If you’re gonna like the violence, then you’re gonna have to accept the consequences, and that of course has a lot to do with the theme of the movie here.”
– David Cronenberg (from DVD commentary)

Spoiler Warning: It’s difficult to discuss A History of Violence without spilling the beans, to some degree, about the central character. If you haven’t seen the movie, you should probably watch it before plowing ahead (Don’t worry, I’ll wait).

Duality is a prevalent theme in many of David Cronenberg’s movies, but it’s never seemed quite as salient, as it appears in A History of Violence. Many of us have two sides that we cultivate, either by accident or design. Perhaps, because of our day job or other obligations, we’re required to suppress a part of our persona that we only reveal to close friends or family. Or maybe there are some unsavory aspects about our past selves that we’d rather not disclose to anyone. By the same token, if we choose to bury those aspects long enough, could we credibly become a different person? Director Cronenberg,* along with writer Josh Olsen (based on a graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke), take this premise and run with it.

* Fun Fact #1: In his DVD commentary, Cronenberg stated that he re-visited two locations, which appeared in earlier films: the motel featured in the opening scene was also utilized in eXistenZ (1999), and a bar in Toronto, standing in as a Philadelphia-area watering hole, was previously featured in The Fly (1986).

Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) is a mild-mannered owner of a diner, who lives in the small town of Millbrook, Indiana* with his wife Edie (Maria Bello) and two kids, Jack and Sarah (Ashton Holmes and Heidi Hayes). His life takes a fateful turn when two ruthless small-time criminals (established in the brutal opening scene) enter his restaurant and threaten to kill his staff. In one swift, bloody act, he turns the tables on the robbers, leaving them dead. Tom becomes a reluctant overnight hero, with reporters vying for interviews, but he just wants things to return to normal. Unfortunately for Tom, his accidental notoriety also catches the attention of Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris), a Philadelphia-based mob enforcer who claims Tom isn’t what he seems to be.  

* Fun Fact #2: Most of the film was shot in Millbrook, Ontario, standing in for the fictional midwestern American town with the same name. Bonus Fact: The town clock is perennially stuck at 1:15.

A History of Violence toys with our assumptions about the principal character by planting the seed of doubt in our minds. The film establishes Tom as an honorable and decent family man at the beginning, with strong ties to community, then proceeds to chip away at our assumptions. When Fogarty accuses Tom of having a shared past, as a cold-blooded killer for the mob, we’re inclined to deny this is the same man. When Fogarty confronts his wife Edie and her daughter in the mall, he asks, “How come he’s so good at killing people?” As Edie re-assesses the man she thought she knew for the past 20 years, we’re right there with her.

Mortensen successfully walks the tightrope between both sides, in his masterful performance as Tom Stall. Despite the awful things he might have done, our sympathies never waver for him. On the other hand, we’re left to speculate how much he’s changed and how much is merely an act. As the stakes are raised, he’s in a desperate struggle not only to save his family, but to preserve the identity he’s constructed. Earlier in the film, we see a husband and wife together for a long time, but still very much in love. They share an intimate, playful moment, full of joy and tenderness. Contrast this with a scene later in the movie, when they engage in a spontaneous bout of savage, painful lovemaking on a staircase. The scene illustrates Edie’s conflicted frame of mind, with her love for the version of the man she married, and revulsion at the person that was hidden underneath.

The always reliable Ed Harris (who can play protagonist and villain with equal adeptness) presents a menacing figure as Fogarty. Beyond his glib exterior lies a storm, churning beneath the surface (Somehow, Harris makes the line “Don’t forget your shoes” sound chilling). Fogarty remembers Tom from an earlier life, when he was Joey Cusack, and aims to settle the score for a confrontation that left him blind in one eye.

It’s worth noting the solid acting job by Ashton Holmes* as Tom’s teenage son, Jack,* who undergoes a metamorphosis of sorts. He’s a complex character, at once sickened and empowered by his father’s subterfuge. In an early scene, he asserts his intellectual dominance over a bully, keeping his anger in check with a sardonic sense of humor, and favoring his quick wit over fists. As an indirect response to his father’s actions, Jack’s next confrontation with the same bully takes a violent turn.  

* Fun Fact #3: Holmes, who played Tom and Edie’s high school-aged son, was 27 at the time.

The decades-long collaboration between David Cronenberg and Howard Shore remains one of the most un-sung collaborations in filmmaking. Shore’s exemplary score keeps us consistently engaged with the film’s tonal shifts. When we’re introduced to the town of Millbrook and Tom’s family, Shore’s music recalls the work of Aaron Copland, evoking an idyllic slice of Americana. As the mood darkens, so does the music, which takes on somber tones, more fitting to Samuel Barber.

Cronenberg subverts our expectations about the protagonist, painting a bucolic portrait of an unassuming small town (Cronenberg said that he relied on the works of Edward Hopper for inspiration), and introducing something sinister into the mix. Tom’s dual identity serves as an apt metaphor for the secrets we keep from our loved ones and co-workers. We keep them concealed, for fear that we will lose their esteem if we dare to reveal facets of our darker selves. It’s not relentlessly grim, however, as Cronenberg and Olsen judiciously infuse humor to undercut the tension, allowing the audience members to take their collective breath. Indeed, one of the biggest laughs comes from a particularly heated scene, when Edie confronts Tom about their surname. A History of Violence is one of the director’s most focused films concerning duality. Bolstered by great performances all around, it’s a meditation on violence as a means to an end, shattering the myth of killing as a heroic act.