A heavy-handed drama with a dash of standard superhero fare, A History Of Violence is a mishmash of ideas and emotions that never gets the response it desires. Director David Cronenberg’s penchant for excessiveness interferes with an otherwise constructive character study that winds up as a black comedy. This analysis of the effect that violence can have on a tight-knit community and family certainly should have been more engaging, and it was probably one rewrite away.
Tom Stall (Mortensen) is a mild-mannered, well-liked citizen of Millbrook, Indiana. He owns and operates a local diner in the small town and his wife, Edie (Bello), is a well-respected attorney. They have two children, Jack (Holmes) and Sarah (Hayes) and live in a nice home – the quintessential American working family. Jack is frequently teased at school, which plays out as a subplot to the violence that will soon permeate the entire family.
One night a pair of small-time thieves enter the diner at closing time and subsequently hold the place up, threatening the life of one of Tom’s employees. Tom takes quick action and ends up gunning down both in cold blood to the shock of his co-workers, and the community. He is hailed as a national hero and all present agree that Tom acted in self-defense. Tom doesn’t respond well to his newfound fame, avoiding reporters and cameras as if he has something to hide.
It appears as though he does when Carl Fogarty (Harris) rolls into town in his black Cadillac that looks suitably out of place. He enters the diner and immediately starts calling Tom “Joey” and accusing him of trying to rip his eye out with barbed wire. According to Carl, Tom is an ex-mob henchman with an expertise for efficient killing, and there is some unfinished business in Philadelphia. Tom denies that he is “Joey” and politely asks Carl to leave, but this is only the beginning of a string of events that exposes Tom’s true demeanor and identity.
A History of Violence has a fantastic first act that only sets up the disappointments to come. Instead of continuing to explore the violence/family perspective, screenwriter Josh Olson, working from the graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke, takes the third act and deteriorates it to a black comedy with a body count. The result is that of unevenness and an identity problem.
Director David Cronenberg’s penchant for excessiveness doesn’t help in this case, either. Cronenberg is one of the most creative and daring directors in Hollywood, but his adoration for gore and explicit sex seems strikingly out-of-place in an otherwise quiet character study. This is all meant for shock value, of course, but it struck me as gratuitous. This is a movie full of constructive ideas and commentary, but it becomes entangled in Cronenberg’s own in-your-face attitude.
It’s really a shame, because the performances are all top-notch. Viggo Mortensen shows tremendous depth is this complicated role. He makes the necessary transformations effortlessly and believably, which is central to the film’s credibility. Maria Bello deserves major credit for taking on such a daring role, even if the screenplay forces her character to over dramatize for much of the second half of the film. Bello is a wonderful presence and it’s very refreshing to see an actress of her caliber take on such an audacious part. Quality supporting work is delivered by Ed Harris as the vengeful Fogarty and William Hurt as mobster Richie Cusack. Hurt takes his role and swings for the fences, and the results are quite entertaining.
A History of Violence is not so much a bad film, but rather one that collapses under the weight of its own convictions. Sensibility is thrown aside in favor of shock value and heavy-handedness, both taken to extreme lengths. The performances are excellent, but A History of Violence is a fine example of how a moody script and an overzealous director can bring a film down.
Studio: New Line Cinema
Length: 96 Minutes
Rating: R for strong brutal violence, graphic sexuality, nudity, language and some drug use.
Theatrical Release: May 16, 2005 (Cannes Film Festival) / September 23, 2005 (Limited) / September 30, 2005 (Wide)
Directed by: David Cronenberg
Written by: Josh Olson. Based upon the graphic novel by John Wagner & Vince Locke.
Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, William Hurt, Ed Harris, Ashton Holmes, Heidi Hayes