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…

Until then,


The order so far:

  • Dead Ringers (4 Changs)
  • The Fly (4 Changs)
  • Videodrome (4 Changs)
  • Scanners (3.5 Changs)
  • A History of Violence (3 Changs)
  • The Brood (3 Changs)
  • The Dead Zone (3 Changs)
  • Shivers (2 Changs)
  • Crash (2 Changs)
  • M. Butterfly (1.5 Changs)
  • Naked Lunch (1.5 Changs)
  • Rabid (1 Chang)
  • Spider (1 Chang)
  • Existenz (1 Chang)
  • Fast Company (Orangutan of Doom)
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    About Jarv

    Workshy cynic, given to posting reams of nonsense on the internet and watching films that have inexplicably got a piss poor reputation.

    22 responses to “Back on Form: A History of Violence”

    1. Jarv says :


      That’s actually a really hard film to review

    2. Droid says :

      Good review. I really liked this one. I’d give it 3 1/2. Every actor is on song. And that throat stomp… Whoa nelly is that brutal.

    3. kloipy says :

      I love 3/4 of this movie up until John Hurt and then I was disappointed. Hated the acting in that scene sorry to say. But the rest of it is great.
      I do enjoy the scene on the stairs. sometimes you just gotta fuck

    4. Continentalop says :

      Good review Jarv.

      I was blown away by this film when it came out, Although, like kloipy, I was disappointed by William Hurt. The fact he is confronting his own brother never really has the impact it should have. And I never even knew about the foot stomp until now (must track down unrated version

      One note though: Harris isn’t mafiosa. None of these guys are. They are Irish mobsters from the Northeast Philly Mob (although Cronenberg has them steal some of the La Cosa Nostra’s lingo by referring to people as “made men.”)

      • Jarv says :


        It was the reference to “Made men” that threw me. I thought they were La Cosa.

      • Jarv says :

        The denouement in the mansion is a bit disappointing, but that end round the dinner table is fucking superb.

        • koutchboom says :

          I just hated how the trailer gave away the whole fucking movie.

          So when I saw it there was 0 suspense, because I felt like I had seen the whole thing already.

          Decent movie overall though. I should check it out again see if being further away from the trailer if its changed the impact of anything.

        • Jarv says :

          I actually saw it without seeing the trailer.

          That seems to happen a lot nowadays with trailers- particularly comedy.

        • Droid says :

          I don’t think I saw the trailer beforehand either. But I think the film is strong enough not to hinge on that. In fact, I liked it more the second time I watched it.

          One of the worst trailers in memory is that Ransom trailer, which blatantly gave away the only interesting aspect of the story. I read at the time that Ron Howard approved it because he felt “the film was strong enough” to give that away in the trailers. I call bullshit on that. That flick sucks. I laughed at the end when Mel clued into who Sinise was when his kid pissed his pants. Fucking stupid shit.

        • koutchboom says :

          The thing with the trailer is that it set up the whole senario.

          He’s a nice guy in a small town….then some mobsters come in and he becomes a hero….but does he have a dark past or not??? Show him fighting more, pretty much showing that he does. It was one of those trailers that told me the WHOLE fucking film.

    5. Jarv says :

      Fuck Ransom. I actually don’t think I’ve ever liked one of his films

    6. Jarv says :

      Indifferent to backdraft. Can’t remember willow, don’t like Apollo 13.

      I really should rewatch Willow.

    7. Jarv says :

      Night Shift. Good shout

    8. Tom_Bando says :

      *Never saw this one, but would certainly give it a watch. Does it remind you at all of ‘Road to Perdition’? I have that and like same.

      *Ed Harris rocks.

      *Who’s the cheer-leader? Not Ms. Bello from my memory.

      *I generally enjoy Richie Cunningham’s flix-Willow, A Beautiful Mind, Backdraft, the Paper(I think that was his), Ransom, Apollo 13 etc. If I hadda pick one—Apollo 13 works for me. Oh and Cinderella Man too-that wasn’t bad.

    9. just pillow talk says :

      Love this movie. After seeing it again, I only grew to love it more. The performances are top-notch, but Willie Hurt’s performance really did bother me the first time. I thought it was too ‘left field’ considering all the other performances were sort of restrained. But after watching it again, it didn’t bother me as much.

      And the ending, I think, is note perfect.

    10. ThereWolf says :

      Great review, Jarv.

      The neck stomp didn’t bother me at all… what does that say about me!

      Movie sex scenes; so many of ’em don’t have a point and I usually spend those moments glancing at my watch (no use, never wear one) thinking the time would be better served by giving the audience more plot. In ‘History Of Violence’ there’s a point; Edie & Tom’s brutal second encounter throws you back to the playful first one – you’re watching two different people. They’re unrecognisable. I find that, more than the violence, particularly unnerving. And the way she fucks him off on the stairs when he’s finished is brilliant, love that.

      Face-off with Ed “Don’t forget your shooooes” Harris – great; face-off in the mansion – great. The round the dinner table ending – perfect.

    11. M. Blitz says :

      I love this movie. Eastern Promises was great but I honestly felt like there’s no contest. This movie is very nearly perfect in my opinion. Your review makes me want to watch it again.

      Is Maria Bello’s performance really underrated though? I swear when this came out, most reviews went out of their way to specifically praise her….Or do you mean in terms of winning awards? Either way, she’s great!

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