David Cronenberg’s A History Of Violence

Every director at some point is encouraged to challenge the aesthetic they are known for, traverse terrains beyond the thematic and stylistic comfort zone they are accustomed to and bless new lands of genre and tone with their talent. Some don’t and stick with what they know, which is fine, while others break free as David Cronenberg did with his fearsome psychological horror story A History Of Violence. Cronenberg is a horror old-hand who loves his prosthetic body parts and buckets o’ blood, albeit always accompanied by strong themes and pointed subtext. Here he trades in the schlock (but not the gore, there’s still plenty of that) for a different sort of horror, the arresting mental climate of violent criminals and the roiling psychological unrest that goes hand in hand with such vicious behaviour, no matter how hard one might try to asphyxiate dark impulses with methodical conditioning. Viggo Mortensen is Tom Stall, small town Everyman, husband, father, greasy spoon diner magnate and pillar of a bucolic slice of Americana. Or is he? The film opens as two ruthless psychopaths (Stephen McHattie and Greg Bryk are so good they deserve their own spinoff film) barge into the idyllic sanctuary of his restaurant and terrorize patrons and staff alike. Tom reacts with uncharacteristically lithe force, quickly and frighteningly dispatching both to the lands beyond with a few quick moves, several gunshots and a pot of hot coffee (one brutal fucking way to die). He’s lauded as local hero and chalks up his heroic reaction to pure instincts… and that’s when the film gets really interesting. Back in the mid 2000’s before social media it would take making international news to dredge up any sort of long buried, sordid past one might have, but sure enough the press comes a’hounding and soon trouble comes a’knocking in an ominous black Chrysler containing one very pissed off Ed Harris as ‘organized crime from the east coast’ who is sure Tom is actually a fellow named Joey, who he once shared a scuffle with over some barbed wire. So who’s lying and who’s not? I mean it’s obvious Tom has a past, the fascination lies in both uncovering it and watching him try to reconcile it with the man he has become since then. The film gets positively Shakespearean when yet another Philadelphia wise-guy played by William Hurt enters the picture and pretty much steals the fucking film from everyone, the skill that dude has is amazing and what he does onscreen in about five minutes not only demonstrates his wry, diabolical control over a scene but completely justifies the Oscar gold he went home with, fucking bravo. The film starts where many other crime/noirs would end: a man with a violent past has found a way out, a proverbial light at the end of the viscera tunnel, and lives not necessarily happily ever after… but free from the din of his former incarnation anyways. Until two punks stir the long dormant reflexes, he ends up on the news and it all comes full circle. I think this film is so brilliant because of what is left unsaid, unexplained and unexplored; it’s barely over ninety minutes long but contains enough thematic implications to fill up or at least catalyze a half dozen films. But it never feels a moment longer or shorter than it needs to be. Mortensen’s performance is about dead on flawless, full of so many veiled notes that are conjured into view with multiple watches, which the film begs of any viewer. Equally spellbinding is Maria Bello as Tom’s firebrand of a wide who finds herself at odds with her own loyal nature when the shards of truth start to eviscerate their family. She’s an actress that Hollywood inexplicably doesn’t entrust with dramatically heavy roles too often but it’s their loss because when she lands a golden egg of a character like this she practically moves worlds. Harris has a ball as the bulldog on low simmer baddie who wishes he was as big of a bad as Hurt, who almost brings down the house and start his own fucking franchise before… well, I won’t spoil it that much. I would have loved to have ‘put it simply’ in my review and not drawled on in adoration like this but it’s just that kind of film. In a way it does the same as I have: it’s barely over an hour and a half and any film of that length could just ‘put it simply’, but in that brisk runtime there’s galaxies of psychological depth and treatises on human nature to unpack. Gotta throw a late hour bone to Howard Shore’s impeccable original score as well, an austerely baroque yet somehow evocatively Midwest composition that calls to mind everything from B&W classics to his work on Lord Of The Rings, which somehow suits the mood. A stone cold classic.

-Nate Hill

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