Monday, August 22, 2011

Clyde’s Movie Palace: A History of Violence (2005)

A History of Violence Marquee

A History of Violence (2005)
Directed by David Cronenberg
Starring
Viggo Mortensen
Maria Bello
Ed Harris
William Hurt
 
In the opening moments of A History of Violence two men leave their hotel room. While one of them goes into the lobby to “check out” the other man sits patiently in the car waiting for him to return. There are no sounds, only an eerie quiet until the older man returns.

“Is everything taken care of?” the one who has been waiting asks. As he gets into the car to join his partner, he answers affirmatively but mentions that there was some trouble with the maid. It is our first hint that these two men are not ordinary motel patrons.

The younger guy who had been waiting realizes his water jug is empty and is told by his partner that there is a cooler in the back of the office. The younger guy goes strolling back inside, as if it everything was business as usual. Quickly, we realize it is not. There is blood on the counter, and two bloody lifeless corpses lying on the floor. He barely acknowledges their existence as he proceeds to fill up his water bottle. At that moment, a bathroom door opens and a young girl, possibly four or five years old stands in the door way quietly sobbing. He quickly hushes her as we see him reach towards his back where a pistol is implanted in his jeans.

From this point on, director David Cronenberg has blanketed us with a thick sense of dread, tension, and horror that permeates the film for the next ninety minutes.
 
He changes gears by transporting us to what is supposed to be the idyllic home of Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen), his wife Edie (Maria Bellow), a teenage son, and a young daughter. Edie is an attorney, and Tom runs a small diner in a town where everybody knows just about everyone else on a first name basis. It’s the kind of town where one could almost picture Andy Taylor sitting on the front porch strumming his guitar while Aunt Bee is in the kitchen baking up a pie. And on most days, it just might be such a town, but because of what we already have witnessed, we know Cronenberg has every intention of upsetting the apple cart.

One evening as Tom is about to close up the restaurant, the two men who were at the motel show up. They are out of cash. As they are about to kill one of the patrons, Tom takes matters into his own hands, hitting one in the face with a pot of coffee, and dispensing with the other with several shots from a pistol. After Tom is stabbed in the foot, he fires a shot point blank into the face of his assailant. It is graphic, quick, and brutal. In most films, this would be the point where there would be a modicum of relief that the bad guys have been dispensed with.   That would be true if this were the end of the film, but it is  only the beginning.

Tom is quickly given hero status by the news media, although he does his best to shun the limelight. Two days later, more men show up at the diner. One of them, Carl Fogerty (Ed Harris) is disfigured on one side of his face.
 
Fogerty claims that Tom is in reality, a man named Joey Cusack, a former mob hit man from Philadelphia. Tom claims it’s a case of mistaken identity, but as Fogerty and his men begin to stalk Tom’s family we begin to question whether Tom’s violent act in the diner was one of self-preservation, or was it something more than that? Could it be that in fact, his violent reaction was not so foreign to Tom after all?

As we discover what the truth may or may not be, Cronenberg let’s the film move along at a rapid clip, punctuated only occasionally by a sudden outburst of violence. Along the way, the film asks a lot of questions which we have to supply the answers to ourselves. Just as Sam Peckinpah asked in the film Straw Dogs is there a certain point at which we are all prone to extreme violent acts, no matter how peaceful we are or how often we believe in turning the other cheek? Can a person, who has lived with violence, shed that for a peaceful existence? Is someone who has committed acts of brutality redeemable, or is it all a mirage, simply to mask their true inner self? And if we find out the person we love, was once someone entirely different, can we still love them, or does the person we think we love really even exist? And having been borne of violence, do we simply pass it down from one generation to the next?

Up until the middle of the film, we think we know what’s going to happen. We expect it to come at the end of the film, but as Cronenberg has been known to do; he throws us a roundhouse curve, putting the ending that we expect where we least expect it. What happens afterwards, answers many of our questions, but still leaves us puzzling over many others.

A History of Violence works on every level, not only as a suspenseful tale of revenge and violence, but manages to give us much food for thought in the process. The scenes of violence are not stylized glamorization that they would be in other films. The violence, when it does occur, is dispensed with gruesomely but quickly just as it is in the real world. We see it happen, and we see it’s after effects, but Cronenberg doesn’t linger letting his story continue quickly on.

Viggo Mortensen, in what is probably his best role to date, is  understated as Tom, but when his identity is questioned by Fogerty, we see a bit of nervousness but are not sure of its origins. Is it because Fogerty has unmasked the truth, or is just the fact that a stranger, who obviously truly believes Tom is someone else, is instilling fear in Tom because of what they may or may not do?  Mario Bello brings us another exceptional acting job as the wife, trying to cope with the fact that the man she thought she married, may be someone else entirely. Ed Harris is dutifully menacing as Fogerty, but in a role that appears late in the film, William Hurt makes him look like a cream puff by comparison and practically steals the movie out from under everyone.

Despite the title and the subject matter, the actual acts of violence only take up a fraction of the running time. It is in the film to make a quick point, and then we move on. Yet, Cronenberg keeps his film fast paced and tightly edited as we make one discovery after another and  keeps us enthralled and glued to our seat every step of the way. And believe me when I tell you that when I’m enthralled, I have no choice but to give you my grade and for A History of Violence it is an A with a bullet.

(A History of Violence is now available on DVD to rent or own. Rated R for graphic violence, nudity, strong sexual situations.)
 

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