Tuesday, June 7, 2011

A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE


David Cronenberg, 2005
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, Ed Harris, and William Hurt

Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen in a challenging performance) is a small-town family man and diner owner that responds to an act of violence in order to defend himself and his customers. He instantly becomes a local and then national hero, which drags into light a series of questions about Tom's identity. He and his family begin to receive menacing visits from a gangster (Ed Harris in his creepiest role), which leads to more violence and pressing questions. Is he the same kind and loving family man his wife, two children, and neighbors have always known? Or does he have a darker, violent, hidden identity from the past?

I recently reviewed Cronenberg's The Fly and Dead Ringers and mentioned that I prefer to watch his films as double features. This also applies to his latest two films, A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, two violent crime dramas starring Viggo Mortensen and focusing on the dissection of the family unit. The two films are so thematically linked to one another that each film can almost be seen as a double or inversion of the other. 

Based on the graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke, this film was released to a lot of critical acclaim that it richly deserves, including a slew of awards and Academy Award nominations. William Hurt was nominated for best supporting actor, even though he was in the film for about five minutes. In some ways, A History of Violence is a typical crime drama and is clearly influenced by '70s films like Straw Dogs. But the incredible amount of tension between Tom and his family, as well as his family and the gangsters, brings it to an entirely different level. This is a film about the trials and tribulations of family, rather than being about masculinity, as many gangster film are. The plot is somewhat slow to unfold, but the powerful characters and developing relationships keeps things steadily afloat. Also, while most gangster/crime films have a certain level of exploitative, entertaining violence, A History of Violence uses every ounce of gore to the fullest effect. Though it is extremely graphic, I would definitely say it is not gratuitous.

Though the film can seem tame compared to a lot of his earlier work (there is no sci-fi or direct horror), A History of Violence still includes the extremely graphic violence Cronenberg is known for. Also, and somehow more disturbing, is the depiction of Tom and Edie's sexual relationship. Though they are a typical middle-American, middle-aged couple, there are two passionate and graphic sex scenes that undoubtedly made a lot of viewers uncomfortable. In a landscape so devoid of erotica, these physically and emotionally invasive scenes are really little gems of brilliance in a film that could easily have become another formulaic crime drama. 

The first, in the beginning of the film, depicts an evening the couple has free of their children. Edie dresses up in her old cheer-leading uniform from high school and Tom gives her somewhat graphic oral sex. The second scene comes much later in the film, when their marriage begins disintegrating in the hailstorm of questions surrounding Tom's identity. They have violent, angry sex on the stairs of their home, leaving it up to the viewer whether or not the act is consensual. I think the reason these scenes are so effective is because they come from out of left field. Interestingly, they have similar pacing to the scenes of violence. We don't expect violence and murder in small town America, but I also don't think we expect scenes of graphic, powerful erotica in such a normative family setting.

The directing, writing and acting are all excellent. I can think of a long list of actors that are more accomplished and more talented than Viggo Mortensen, but almost none who challenge themselves more. (This more than makes up for Hidalgo, which I watched on an airplane. I still want that hour and a half back.) He and Cronenberg seem to have a perfect understanding, which works equally well in Eastern Promises. Maria Bello is also surprisingly compelling in a tense, demanding role as Tom's wife.

A History of Violence comes highly recommended. In a weird and sad bit of trivia, it was actually the last film released on VHS. So you could dust off your VCR and watch it that way, or you could pick up the version I'm reviewing, which is the single-disc released by New Line. It includes a documentary, deleted scenes, and a few featurettes.

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