The Theory of Chaos

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

From the Archive - MOVIE REVIEW - A History of Violence

Originally published 9/30/05
Full review behind the jump

A History of Violence

: David Cronenberg
: Screenplay by Josh Olson, based on the graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke
: Chris Bender, J.C. Spink, David Cronenberg
: Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, Ed Harris, William Hurt, Ashton Holmes, Peter MacNeill

Of all the great performances I’ve seen William Hurt give, I’ve never seen him give one so mesmerizing and bizarre as he gives in
A History of Violence, David Cronenberg’s film adaptation of the graphic novel. And that is all I will say on the matter, as it would be criminal to give any detail on who he plays and how he fits into the current events of Tom Stall’s life.

The question of who Tom Stall is and if he will survive these events forms the backbone of this movie, and rather unusually I left the movie not entirely sure I had the complete answer, or whether I even thought the movie was as great as it seemed to be from the confidence of its design and the brilliance of its players. My response is still coalescing, so let’s get on with the review and see if we can’t come to some conclusion.

Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) runs Stall’s Diner, the main hangout on the main drag of Millbrook, Indiana. It’s comfortable, easy-going and quiet, a reflection of the owner, who’s married to a beautiful, smart lawyer named Edie (Maria Bello). They have two kids, one (Ashton Holmes) in high school and the other (Heidi Hayes) still in elementary, and the kind of lasting playfulness in their love that requires the kids be sent to spend the night elsewhere every so often. It’s about as ideal a small town life as you could ask for.

That peace and happiness is not so much shattered as unraveled by violence, episodes of terrifying violence that descend on the town of Millbrook like demons coming to collect a debt from Stall for the life he has. Part of the movie’s power is the way that it’s not just one incident which changes everything, it’s how it changes a lot, then triggers another event which changes even more, and time and space is given to track how the members of the Stall family are being affected by each new spilling of blood.

It starts when two very bad men (Stephen McHattie, Greg Berk) come into Tom’s diner. They’re traveling the back roads of America doing horrible deeds, and are only holding back from killing everyone in the joint because first they want the money in the cash register. Something snaps in the non-confrontational Tom and he takes lethal charge of the situation. Cronenberg shoots this action cleanly, showing cause-and-effect without sensation and stopping to note with almost clinical curiosity the various ways a human body can be rendered inoperative. These are some of those chilling makeup effects that don’t look like effects at all.

Tom is hailed as a hero for his efforts, but they also attract the attention of a sinister man named Mr. Fogarty (Ed Harris). He has scar tissue around one blinded eye and his henchmen keep calling him “Mr. Fogarty” with a stylized casualness that suggests you should be very afraid to be hearing that name. And Mr. Fogarty is quite convinced that Tom, all his protestations aside, is actually a guy named Joey from Philadelphia.

Cronenberg’s interest in savage emotions and dreadful possibilities takes command of the screen. What’s most brutal and strange ironically comes across with the most authority, while scenes familiar to us from other movies, like Tom’s son being picked on by a bully (Kyle Schmid) or Tom being harassed on his front lawn by a TV reporter, ring so artificial as to be nearly absurd. It’s jarring enough I have to think there’s something intentional about it, maybe a greater contrast drawn between the clichéd ideal Tom’s living and the macabre spiral of killing he’s being sucked into. I don’t think the choice works.

I thought of great films like Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven and Sam Raimi’s A Simple Plan, how one act of violence begat another and another and another with unstoppable logic. How by the end so many bodies litter the stage and the survivors look at what they have left and wonder if they can ever again have even a taste of what they had before.

Tom Stall is a great character in a film with many great characters; Mortensen does delicate work. And Maria Bello plays so many notes with such ease – you get to see her as a concerned mother, a sharp and clear-thinking lawyer who stays on top of what’s unfolding, and a wife who still loves and lusts for her husband and demonstrates that lust in two brilliantly contrasting scenes. Harris is delightfully malignant and, as said above, William Hurt – who waits so long to appear you might forget he’s in the movie – may give the best performance of them all.

And it all fits together in the end, and so I’ll say that I think A History of Violence is a great film. Once one domino drops in its plot, the end is inevitable. What comes after the ending is a haunting mystery, because as well as you might think you know Tom Stall and his family, they’ve been through a lot, and that can change a person, you know…


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