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A History Of Violence (2005)
Director: David Cronenberg

review by Roger Keen

Two travelling hoods wash up in the small town of Millbrook, Indiana intent on rape and pillage. They enter a diner owned by Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen), demand service as the place is closing, then grab the waitress and pull guns in anticipation of a sadistic bloodbath. But Tom suddenly leaps into action, overpowering and killing both guys, whilst sustaining a minor injury. He becomes a local hero and gets his name and face in the media, though he remains modest, trying to play down his actions. Enter Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris), a Philadelphia mob boss who turns up at the diner with his crew and quizzes Tom, having heard about his recent exploits. Fogarty is convinced that Tom is in fact Joey Cusack, a hoodlum from past times in Philly, with whom Fogarty has a score to settle. Tom insists it is a case of mistaken identity, and his family and the local sheriff (Peter MacNeil) close ranks against the gang. But something has been started, and seemingly nothing can halt the violence escalating inexorably, engulfing Tom's whole life.

Though A History of Violence deals with a real-world crime story, it is still recognisably part of Cronenberg's oeuvre, recalling the themes of his classic work. Violence is very much treated as a 'virus', which having caused an initial infection then spreads and contaminates all around. This is put over effectively in scenes such as where Tom's son Jack (Ashton Holmes) first takes a passive - some might say wimpy - attitude towards the school bullies, and later gives them the hammering they richly deserve. We naturally root for Tom and his family in their troubles, and by using this schematic, but skewing it slightly, Cronenberg cleverly makes us examine our own attitudes to violence. As the disease consolidates, Tom's marriage to Edie (Maria Bello) comes under stress, and the playful, role-playing sex of former times is displaced by something far darker and rougher.

In terms of direction and acting A History of Violence is very well realised. The transitional scenes are done with a spare simplicity that aids realism, so when the violence erupts it really shocks. Stylistically, the scenes of violence use elements of both traditional splatter and the more contemporary, quick-fire, bordering-into-fantasy violence found in martial arts influenced films. It has both an air of meaningful, fabulist 1970s' splatter-fests such as The Hills Have Eyes and Straw Dogs, and also westerns, where a lone figure faces impossible odds, such as High Noon. The treatment and ambience nods towards Tarantino's gangster cool and Lynch's noir weirdness, whilst still possessing its own originality. Viggo Mortensen is excellent as the troubled hero, showing a very different kind of angst to that of Lord Of The Rings' Aragorn, and beaming out the same kind of charm and charisma as Peter Weller did in Naked Lunch. Ed Harris makes a great villain, with dark shades over his scarred face, and a civility that feels so fragile in its underlying menace. Maria Bello, Ashton Holmes and little daughter Heidi Hayes are well cast, and support the plausibility of this family under stress.

Ultimately, A History of Violence could be viewed as Cronenberg's most conventional film, in that it takes the step of gelling pretty much completely on a linear narrative level, whereas Dead Ringers, Crash and Spider, for example, didn't quite, keeping a foot in the enigmatic ether. So we have a film that is both 'satisfying' as a piece of storytelling, and still full of that particular Cronenbergian feel and mood. It might well prove to be a new beginning for this most singular director.
A History of Violence - film poster

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