July 23, 2010

Rabid Rewind: A History of Violence

Title: A History of Violence
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, Ed Harris, William Hurt
Director: David Cronenberg
Writers: John Olsen; based on the graphic novel by John Wagner & Vince Locke
Released: Alliance Atlantis (2005)
Genre: Suspense/Thriller

As a small town kind of guy, the setting of A History of Violence felt at once Rockwellian and familiar. The townsfolk were just so damned chipper and friendly, and to a degree felt a bit saccharine, I had trouble accepting them as real people. But I think there needed to be that kind of visual contrast, since the two homicidal maniacs that descend upon the town in the first act were wildly malevolent.

More than the introduction of two gun-toting, thieving killers to such a humble setting, however, is the intervening actions of diner owner, Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen), that is really where the heart of the movie is first exposed. The mild-mannered pillar of the community, for a few frenzied seconds, responds to the threat of violence with an equally vicious display and kills the two gunmen. And as his actions become the new buzz with local media, a new dark specter--Ed Harris playing Philly gangster, Carl Fogarty--arrives to confront Tom Stall.

It's an engaging premise for a film that amplifies what already has the potential to be a good revenge-style flick: Is Tom Stall really the Philly gangster Joey Cusack, as Carl Fogarty asserts, and living a life of exile? Or is it that Carl has tragically identified an innocent husband and father as an opposing gangster who tried to tear out his eye with barbed-wire?

On top of that, there is the exploration of Tom's son, Jack (Ashton Holmes), as he reconciles his own passivity and encounters with bullies against the celebrated actions of his father against the two criminals at the diner. The humiliation he endures prior to the incident only intensifies when his father becomes a local hero.

Then there is Tom's wife, Edie (Maria Bello), who wrestles with her own doubts about Tom's identity as Fogarty and his henchmen relentlessly antagonize and intimidate the entire family. It's a pretty powerful bit of acting from her that escapes the threat of winding up that fretful helpless wife, as she shows herself to be equally assertive and confrontational at certain points in the film.

The title of the movie alone should let any audience know that A History of Violence is a not-so-subtle examination of western culture's preoccupation and celebration of violence. The movie walks a line between reality and fable as the story progresses, and the ending shows how scarred a family can be when an outside force imposes itself so suddenly and ferociously.

While I really liked the movie, both on an intellectual level as well as a prurient one, I was surprised at how there was no regard given to the graphic novel which inspired it. Yes, it is acknowledged in the opening credits and the back of the DVD, but in all of the DVD extras no one made any mention of the source material. I heard plenty of praise for the screenwriter who adapted it, Josh Olson--even showing in constantly kissing the feet of David Cronenberg on stage and at Cannes, but no celebration of the men who created the tale. If not for minuscule recognition afforded to John Wagner and Vince Locke, I would have had no idea this movie was either an adaptation or the work of people other than Cronenberg and Olson. A shame, really, as I would like to read the graphic novel to see just how far the movie deviates and becomes its own creature compared to the book.

Nit-picking over writing credits aside, this is a fantastic film. It's not a feel-good film with promise of a happy ending, but it is a great piece of film making and storytelling that people ought to see for themselves.


  1. Couldn't agree more regarding the film, though it was one of those flicks which really caught me by surprise. I was back in N. America visiting my folks when the movie was released with little fanfare accompanying it. I only learned about the film via a short piece on public radio, which subsequently prompted me to take a drive into town and to be blunt, I was extremely impressed. Of the ten or so films I've seen in U.S. cinemas over the past eight years, A History of Violence is my favorite.

  2. It's pretty lucky of you to see ten U.S. films and like one of them. I wish I had that kind of luck. :)