2005, David Cronenberg
I’ve seen this film five times now and it’s one that truly improves on each viewing. A History of Violence took David Cronenberg into a new and fascinating area of human drama. It is a film that explores many themes, from the impact of violence on a household to the dark nature that burns inside all of us, but at it’s heart it is about a family torn apart by a lie. Cronenberg, as a filmmaker, was born in blood, but not in the rural America way that this film represents. He came from decades of the most shocking, grotesque physical and psychological horror that cinema was capable of, which made his exploration into the more realistic side of violence that much more intriguing. A History of Violence isn’t loaded with the kind of insane imagery and special effects that left lasting impressions from his first few decades of film, but instead it takes it’s place in the heart of America and doesn’t remove itself from being firmly planted in a realistic setting.
The film opens on a beautiful long-take of two mysterious men emerging from their hotel room, ready to check out and head upon their day. The opening is incredibly mundane, the two discussing the hot weather and their need for more water. As one of them comes out from the main office and the other goes back in to retrieve the water the moment takes on a shocking and sinister tone, as we see that these are men of extreme, immoral violence. Quickly we cut to the Stall family, where Tom Stall (played by Viggo Mortensen, in his first but not last collaboration with the director) awakens in the middle of the night to ease his daughter out of a bad dream. The introduction to the family is serene and very Little House on the Prairie, with it’s sweetness and almost too-perfect dialogue.
The next morning we open up on the town of Millbrook, Indiana, a quiet and peaceful place where everybody knows everybody else and you can walk to work if you want to. It’s a lovely location, the kind of place that I would like to settle down one day, and Tom had made a wonderful life here with his children and wife Edie (Maria Bello). Of course this being a film, conflict arises when the two bad men stroll in and Tom is forced into an act of violence to protect himself and others at the local diner that he owns. This first act of violence is one of few in the film and it comes as a major shock to the viewer.
In Cronenberg’s previous films, the violence was always expected and sometimes outlandish, as appropriate for the science-fiction tinted stories that he was putting on display. Here he takes his same in-your-face approach to the violence, but the sereneness of daily life and the genuinely human tone of the piece makes it even more shocking than any of his previous works. Something as simple as a character shouting becomes something entirely out of place, entirely disruptive to the flow of daily life in this town.
Tom’s heroic act of violence sets off a chain of events that brings chaos on his home, with the menacing Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris) showing up afterwards and insisting that he knows Tom, but that his name is Joey Cusack and he is responsible for a lot of terrible things. This idea of the mild-mannered Tom Stall being a man of danger creates a rift in his home, constantly put into terror mode by the looming threat of what an outside force like Fogarty is capable of in this sweet little town. Cronenberg uses this paranoia and break of familial bonds to really dissect the typical American family, and in turn to dissect the archetype of the American father.
Viggo Mortensen’s performance is one of great strength here, as we see a man who has spent his life trying to escape his past being threatened with the idea of losing everything that he has built. It’s a powerfully internal work that sears in several moments, including one where he sits alone at the counter of his diner and we get the first real glimpse of Joey Cusack. He has the difficult task of having to be both of these men at once, Tom the sincere and timid man who wears a crucifix around his neck and Joey the dangerous and relentless animal who can strike terror into this who oppose him, but he handles it with the skill he has always been capable of as an actor.
Maria Bello is equally impressive as the conflicted Edie, a mother who is possible more shocked at her own reaction to the idea of being attracted to someone as dangerous as Joey as she is at the idea of her husband being a completely different man than she married. She is a commanding force on screen, as is everyone here and more than a little credit should be given to Harris who is able to appropriately bring in the menace that would slowly crumble an entire family.
I’m always a great admirer of when films are able to use sex as something more than just gratuitous thrills for the audience, and Cronenberg has always been one to bring much more importance to the act than most of his fellow directors in cinema do. A History of Violence features some of the most stunning use of the physical act I’ve ever seen, because not only does it use it as a moment of great importance for the characters themselves but it’s one of the few films I’ve seen that is able to use sex as a means of significant character and thematic development. There are two sex scenes in the film and the contrast of them, the first being sweet and loving, the second being violent and brutal, speaks volumes to where the characters are at both points and how far they’ve come as a result.
The final act sees Tom having to finally face his demons, returning to the Philadelphia he once knew to have his confrontation with his brother Richie (William Hurt) in a showdown for the ages. He tried running away from his problems but now he knows that he has to face them dead-on and that’s exactly what he does. William Hurt received an Oscar nomination for his brief appearance, and it’s easy to see why. In less than fifteen minutes he is able to leave a stronger impression than most actors can do in an entire film, creating a mob boss who is charismatic, humorous and intimidating all at once. The chemistry between him and Mortensen is as sincere as the chemistry between Mortensen and Bello, fully convincing that these two men had shared decades of history with one another.
Stall must resort to one final act of violence, again being pushed into it by forces out of his control but completely by consequence of his own actions, and afterwards he cleanses himself in a lake in what is one of the most stunningly beautiful scenes I’ve experienced in film. Tom Stall is put through so much heartache throughout the film, torn apart by his own sins, and here at the end he has faced his demons and is now fully able to wash them away, baptizing himself in water after he is forced into a baptism by fire. It’s a remarkably touching moment that brings this character study full circle, allowing him to return to the life he created for himself, but the film closes with a moment that lets the audience know that even if his family does accept him back nothing is going to be the same. You can’t escape violence, not in this life.