Back on Form: A History of Violence
Can I get a “Hallelujah”? How about a “Praise the Lord”? Finally, your intrepid reviewer has cleared the forsaken films and moved onto Cronenberg’s two most recent films. The first is the much praised A History of Violence. Based on the funnybook by Jack Wagner (creator of Judge Dredd), A History of Violence tells the story of Tom Stall, a humble diner owner in nowhere USA, and his violent past catching up with him.
I am, I have to say, ecstatic to make it to this film as there have been times in the last four when I honestly thought about chucking this series in (round about mid way through Spider, still- it’s always darkest just before dawn). A History of Violence represents an absolutely storming return to form, and probably Cronenberg’s first mainstream film. Not that it doesn’t deal with identity and outside forces intruding on an otherwise peaceful existence but it feels much more commercial than the vast majority of his films. It’s certainly much more accessible.
Viggo Mortenson plays mild-mannered Tom Stall. Tom is a nobody, he lives a normal, mundane life with his wife Edie (an unfairly underrated performance from Maria Bello) and their 2 children, Jack and Sarah. They are as average a family as could be found in middle America. Tom’s closing up his diner one night, when two criminal scumbags invade, and he shows a hitherto hidden aptitude for damaging people. As a result of this, he becomes a local hero, and this draws shadowy figures out of his past into the open. Tom gradually immerses his family in a world of violence before cleaning up the mob back in Philly, and returning home.
This is a really, really good film. Before I gave it a spin the other day, I hadn’t seen it in a few years, but I had some inkling of preferring Eastern Promises. Now I’m not so sure. The acting here is simply outstanding with Ed Harris as the mafiosi particularly good. It’s a really unpleasant and menacing performance, and although the character has every reason to want revenge on “Joey Cusack”, he’s clearly a paint by numbers villain. Aside from him all the acting in this is first rate, but I want to point out Ashton Holmes (now appearing in Nikita) as Jack, a put upon nerd with hidden rage and an inherited talent for brutality.
A History of Violence is not easy to watch. There are several scenes in it not for the squeamish (the throat stamp in particular) and I’m surprised that this passed uncut in the UK (unlike America). Furthermore, the film always feels as if it is being restrained- there are many instances where the impression is of impending bloodshed and it very rarely follows through with it. The best description I can give is that the whole thing feels “taut”.
Unlike other Cronenberg films of this period (looking at you, M. Butterfly) the Canadian’s understated style really complements the action. There is a cold feeling to the film, but that’s perfectly fitting, seeing as we are effectively watching one man reveal a dangerous and frightening past that he has effectively suppressed for nigh on 20 years. Cronenberg has never been one to shy away from either gore or uncomfortable sex scenes and A History of Violence has a particularly brutal “rough” sex scene in it that is deeply uncomfortable watching. It’s presented without musical accompaniment, and filmed in the most matter-of-fact way that I actually flinched on first watching. It isn’t rape, but it’s damned close and I was left with the lingering suspicion that I’d just watched something horribly unpleasant, and the almost brutal feel to the scene mirrors the actual physical damage inflicted on Tom’s antagonists.
This is a very good film, but it isn’t perfect. I’m not an idiot, and I don’t need things spelled out for me, but there is a lot of dialogue here that hints at some genuinely interesting ideas that are never followed through with- for example Tom says that he “killed Joey” by wandering into the desert and meditating until the anger was gone. This is mentioned in passing and never touched on again. Also, Tom’s past life as Joey sounds like an orgy of mob-related fun, and I almost want to see a prequel to it that ends with him wandering into the desert. Furthermore, his family life, particularly with regard to Jack and his newly discovered badass self feels a bit incomplete (although I challenge anyone not to cheer a bit inside when he batters the bully). This is a pretty minor complaint though.
The other major point of interest in this film is the end. I won’t spoil it, but there’s a certain Godfather feeling to it, and it tantalises the audience by suggesting that this story is far from complete. It’s a great scene, and when I first saw it the audience I was with strongly disliked it because they assumed that nothing was happening. Nothing could be further from the truth here- just because nothing is being said, doesn’t mean that nothing is going on (take note Tarantino). It’s a wonderfully understated ending to a deliberately understated film.
Overall, I really, really do recommend this one. It isn’t one of his best 4 films, but it is very good and it is a merciful relief to see Cronenberg back on song. I give A History of Violence 3 well deserved Changs.
Next up is the brutal Eastern Promises, the last one! I’m almost there…
The order so far: