A History of Violence (2005)

David Cronenberg has fascinated me since I discovered Dead Ringers in the early 90s. See, I was convinced at the time that there were two guys playing Mantle brothers. I realize that part of the credit should go to Jeremy Irons, but it also takes a special director to present two different people, with two distinct personalities, and appearances. Cronenberg has been studying multiple personalities and multiple universes in Spider, to an extent in Crash, and definitely in M Butterfly and Existenz. He’s also fascinated with people under tremendous stress, being put under scrutiny (again Spider and The Fly), and as you may know, his films typically include a decent dose of gore. Naturally, when I heard about “A History of Violence”, the title was all I needed to know. It’s Cronenberg’s territory. It might be confusing, but it will not be boring for a minute.

It’s no surprise that very first reviews of the movie keep mentioning that it’s his strongest, most accessible film to date. While I personally disagree (the techno geek in me easily identified with characters of Existenz, and Scanners; and Crash was easy to watch because of James Spader), I understand these reviewers. They get it. They hope others get the movie too. And I’d like to think that I got it too, although the theater experience left a very sour taste in my mouth. I can only hope Cronenberg was going for this effect. But before I get to this, a little about the plot.

From the trailer you’ll know the story. It’s about a small town where everyone knows everyone else. A quiet restaurant owner (Viggo Mortensen) one day gets unwanted visitors – robbers. Instead of falling prey to their gun-flinging antics, or just opening up the register and bending over, he defends his turf and in a bloody, quick shootout kills them both. He becomes the town’s hero – the wife (Maria Bello) is surprised and impressed with his prowess and fearlessness; and his son (Ashton Holmes) begins to shed his “geek” image at school. Everything’s going good, although Tom (Viggo) is uneasy about all the attention he’s getting, after all, he “did what everyone else would have done”. Tom’s discomfort grows bigger as another visitor shows up at the restaurant door – an older guy in a black suit (Ed Harris) with a scarred face. He claims he knew Tom – under a different name, in a different town, and very very different circumstances.

Is Tom living a double life? Was he a killer or a goon in the past? Is he hiding from the mob? Is the mob simply recruiting new brave faces? Did Tom’s self defense attract the wrong kind of people into his small circle of friends? These questions (and their natural conclusions) are all answered in the movie, as Tom’s family learns to deal with things/people who are not what they seem, and accept new possibilities that they did not even consider before.

It’s difficult to talk about this movie without giving away various twists, but one thing stands out throughout – the people change when the circumstances around them change. It’s amazing that someone paid attention to these small, subtle changes – the smile is different, the accent shifts, the clothes and even posture changes as these people change into different roles, or as roles are imposed on them. As you can expect, a movie dealing with violence will have a lot of forced encounters, and violent outbursts. Tom’s family bravely goes through these steps, but to watch them is incredible – it looks instinctual natural, as if there was no other way for events to unfold.

The other thing that kept me mulling the movie over and over is just how much is not said (and not shown), and left to my imagination. I admire directors and actors capable of expressing some idea, or event with minimal on-screen activity. Mortensen, Bello, Harris all act with their eyes, with the corners of their mouth, as if they were in some costume drama, and words were scarce. Dialogues are spoken with mere looks, and in the last act, when William Hurt appears for a small role, his words don’t match his intentions, and worse yet, his facial expression implies something else altogether. It’s amazing that this groups of actors could convey such complexity, and it could all be captured effectively in a story that tells you very little – and leaves a lot for you to figure out.

Maybe that’s why when I was leaving the theatre with two friends we kept arguing how the film really ends – and had completely opposite ideas. I like how the ending is open-ended, despite their entire journey being quite straight (in retrospect). Generally, I like when a movie leaves something behind, a train of unfinished thought, or a character with unresolved issues. Give me something to ponder, makes the film even more memorable.

Now about that thing I said earlier – the movie being accessible to general public. Well, there were some scenes where violence was used as a means to propel the plot, and to make a bigger point about violence. You know, sorta like a moral of the story. Think about the title for a second and try to arrive at that point yourself. Now picture a bunch of people sitting in the dark and cheering on a main character beating the crap out of another character… in a film titled “A History of Violence”… Kinda makes you sad that the moral went right over their heads… However, not all is lost – by the third time Cronenberg used that trick the audience was mainly gasping or sitting very, very quietly. I think they finally got it. Unless of course my own gut feeling was wrong, and I was supposed to cheer on all along.

I don’t know – will have to wait and see how this movie opens up, and whether people will love or hate it. Honestly, I don’t think it’s possible to hate a film like that – it’s too open-ended, and many things will be interpreted based entirely on your disposition. Nevertheless, the movie is very topical, and the performances are superb. It works in the world of this small family, and it works as a commentary on our world. You can decide how to accept this film, and whether you even like what it has to say. I liked it a lot on both levels. Could have used a little smarter crowd, though.

Cronenberg has made a film that was easy for “ME” to follow and understand, but what about all the rest? I’m not being elitist, just want to be reassured that my reaction is close to that of a person sitting next to me. Otherwise I probably wouldn’t want to be sitting next to a person like that in the dark…

See it when it opens later this month, and let me know what you thought about the violence.

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