It may be a slightly immature take, but I’ve always gravitated more towards David Cronenberg’s earlier, genre work than his later, more… well, not conventional work, but you know what I mean.
It’s not like I don’t like such works as Dead Ringers, Crash and Eastern Promises, but I grew up with the Cronenberg that gave us squishy sex parasites, vomiting insectoid scientists and horny, pulsating television sets and the lack of such suggestive imagery was sorely missed. Or at least, it was until I saw A History Of Violence, a thoughtful thriller loosely based of the graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke that takes the conventions of such shoot first, ask questions never movies such as Death Wish and instead adds subtle musings about the murderous acts people afflict on each other and how it can spread.
Tom Stall is a simple man who owns a diner in Indiana and who has an impossibly picturesque family containing the usual loving wife, a teen son who is being bullied and a young daughter smothered in blonde curls. However, his content existence is thrown into a state of upheaval when one evening, just before closing, two very violent men enter with the intent to rob the place while simultaneously racking up a large bodycount simply for the hell of it. However, their rampage is halted when the seemingly mild mannered Tom suddenly springs into action and kills both men with alarming ease, pumping one villain’s chest full of lead before blowing the other one’s face all over the tile floor despite taking a knife to the foot.
In such a small town, Tom is instantly hailed a hero and news hungry reporters descend upon him for stories of his heroism only to find that Stall is as humble as he is brave, visibly disliking the spotlight.
However, just as things start to get back to normal, Tom is approached by scar-faced mobster, Carl Fogarty, who claims that Tom isn’t who he says he is but is in fact an ex-mobster who previously worked for the Irish Mob out of Philadelphia named Joey Cusack – a fact that Tom staunchly denies. But violence has a way of spreading and sa Fogarty continues to put pressure on Tom’s family and even his wife is starting to doubt if her husband is who he says he is, young Jack manages to meet his bully with a beating that’s brutal as it is out of character.
With the ramifications of his heroic act gradually rotting away the trust that exists within his family, Tom realises that a showdown with the disfigured gangster is inevitable; but is Fogarty actually right?
Is Tom Stall actually a man who once performed horrible acts of violence and now must atone for them now that he has everything to lose?
Those of you expecting a savagely triumphant movie where a wronged Viggo Mortensen violently takes care of business as we cheer him on is in for something of a shock as Cronenberg isn’t not the sort of director to attempt something so prosaic. No, what we have here is a brutal drama that examines the effect that violence has on not just the people it happens to (most of whom end up dead) but more importantly the people who perpetrate it. It’s a fascinating concept that takes that old tale of the violent man who has renounced violence an exchanges themes of honor and manhood with a very real feeling that the urge to do harm spreads like a disease causing addiction, infecting those around them as your actions only cause matters to snowball.
The whole film is shot in an almost bland, matter of fact way, stubbonly refusing to add a glamorous tint to the actions of its characters and even the editing starts off as clunky, almost hinting at the naivety of the characters going into the film. It may have been packaged as a thriller, but Cronenberg isn’t even remotely interested in making that, focusing instead on his characters as their ordeal begins to chisel away at the very fibre of their identities.
Mortensen is electric despite playing Tom (or is it Joey) so understated, you’re initially not sure if he’s doing anything at all – but the subtlety of his performance hints at the incredibly measured way he’s been living his life while Maria Bello, mercifully separated from projects like Coyote Ugly, impresses as Edie Stall as she desperately tries to support her husband throughout all the bullets an the blood despite her growing suspicion that all these gangster may not be mistaken after all.
In fact, the whole nature of the movie can be summed up in two, opposing sex scenes that ingeniously shows the effects the events are having on the couple with an early coupling being fun, attentive and involves some slightly goofy roleplay – however, once the bodies start piling up and distrust runs rampant, a sex scene occurs that sees Tom and Edie almost indulge in mutual rape, the fun playfulness now swapped out for guttural fucking. It’s a remarkable bout of character work that not many western directors would choose to try, with most sex scenes in American movies simply there to show that characters are in love or simply as some easy titillation – Cronenberg however uses it as a powerful storytelling tool to move his story forward.
Giving slightly more showy performances are the “villains” of the piece, with Ed Harris pumping out so many bad vibes as his scar-faced goon he barely has to speak while an Oscar nom scoring William Hurt is nicely verbose as a crime boss who wants this mess cleaned up asap.
Finally, there’s the violence itself which is brief, stark, incredibly vicious and is never once made out to be anything other than a traumatic act that thrills while never seeming irresponsibly cool. Be it a man’s nose being repeatedly smashed until his proboscis is nothing more than a bloody crater, or a unwitting heavy getting his larynx stamped on with an audible crunch, all of the violence committed leaves you in a state of shock, rather than elation, even when it’s carried out for heroic reasons and even the final showdown has a faint sense of the farcical about it as an exasperated Hurt sees his plans crumble laughably quick.
When ranked up against his distinctive filmography (“distinctive” being something of a fucking understatement), there’s a damn good chance that A History Of Violence may actually be Cronenberg’s best film thanks to the Canadian king of venereal horror taking his usual themes of insidious, body horror causing diseases and shifting it into a more nuanced thread that still scratches that visceral itch, but gives you far more to ponder as the drama quietly and calmly smashes you over the head with a baseball bat made of subtle substance.