A History of Violence Review
Some spoilers are contained in this review
David Cronenberg has been edging closer to the mainstream ever since his adaptation of The Dead Zone in 1983. What’s interesting, however, is that he is one of the very few filmmakers for whom selling out to conventional Hollywood is a completely alien concept. Every single film he’s made, no matter whether or not it was an artistic success, is a product of his completely unique vision and A History of Violence is no exception.
The film is based on a graphic novel by Vince Locke and John Wagner, first published in 1997, and it broadly follows the plot of the original although the graphic violence of the illustrations is considerably toned down and a family relationship is established between two of the main characters. Viggo Mortensen plays Tom Stall, a family man living in the mid-west who is suddenly confronted by two hoods trying to rob his diner. He stops the robbery in a fast-thinking, brutal manner and finds himself a minor media celebrity. One day, three mysterious men arrive at his now popular diner and their leader, Carl Fogerty (Harris), claims to not only know Tom - under the name ‘Joey Cusack’ – but also to have been horribly scarred by him. Tom and his Edie (Bello) become increasingly paranoid and their feelings are justified when Fogerty and his accomplices attack their family home.
Back in the mid-1970s, Cronenberg’s Shivers and Rabid examined the ways in which an irrational outbreak of violence destroys first an enclosed community and then an entire town. Refining the theme, The Brood closely examines the nature of human violence, linking the mental with the physical and suggesting, in one of the director’s greatest visual metaphors, a corporeal source which produces the real ‘shape of rage’. It’s this theme which returns to Cronenberg’s universe in A History of Violence although it’s interesting to note that the physiological deus-ex-machina has vanished in favour of a mental aberration which isn’t explained. Tom really is Joey Cusack but we assume that he’s escaped the life of violence for reasons that we never discover. We never find out where Tom/Joey’s rage comes from, simply that it exists but has been buried under a comfort blanket of domesticity and erupts in the heat of a particularly intense moment of stress. The film examines the consequences of this single moment of violence, a brief explosion of Joey into Tom’s life, and demonstrates two significant things; firstly, how violence consumes itself and escalates out of control and, secondly, how paper-thin, almost illusory, a simple domestic life is when it comes to a crisis. The violence leads to Tom’s whole identity breaking down, not merely in the sense that he transmutes back into Joey, but also in that his happy marriage is proved to be remarkably fragile. A second viewing reveals all manner of tensions in the family home of course – the breakfast conversation between Tom and his son Jack (Holmes) is particularly pointed – and there is a nicely understated subtext of the ways in which the placid banality of middle America is simply a square of lint placed over a seeping wound.
This theme of violence suppressed but never extinguished is examined slightly more ploddingly in the subplot about Jack and his problems with the school bully Bobby. Ashton Holmes does his best with the role of Jack and is quite touching in the early scenes but his role in the film is simply to show the delicacy of the boundaries between rationality and violence. It backs up the main storyline but I don’t think it’s entirely necessary for the film and it looks a little like padding – which is a particular surprise in a 97 minute film. The scene in which Jack beats up Bobby is followed by a thuddingly obvious scene between him and his father that, again, spells out what we already know. In contrast, Tom’s agony over his increasingly divided identity is beautifully explored with subtlety and intelligence, often coming out through brief looks or dialogue asides. The responses of Edie are also explored in a considered way thanks to Bello’s expressive and very affecting performance. Required to express an incredibly wide range of reactions, Bello is quite superb and she does her best work in the toughest scene of the film; a sex scene in which she not only finds out what it’s like to fuck Joey rather than Tom, but finds herself liking it.
Over the years, Cronenberg has developed a remarkably fluid, unforced style of filmmaking and A History of Violence is an admirably controlled piece of work. The opening tracking shot which runs about four minutes is a beauty, establishing a languorous atmosphere which is then rudely disrupted as we see the consequences of the film’s first act of violence. This introduction to the world of two incidental but important characters is memorable not only for this ingenious contrasting but also for a particularly needless killing of a child which is thankfully kept off-screen. The film moves with a kind of grace, showcasing Peter Suschitzky’s elegiac cinematography of the autumnal Ontario landscapes and moving effortlessly, with the assistance of Ronald Sanders’ careful editing, from one narrative point to the next. If it never quite cuts loose to become emotionally overwhelming in the manner of Crash or Dead Ringers then that’s perhaps because it’s a little too controlled and the emotions of love and home which wash over us in the poignant, nostalgic opening scenes are never sufficiently replaced in the later scenes. There are two exceptions to this buttoned-down style – the aforementioned sex scene which erupts in a splatter of messy emotions and in William Hurt’s flamboyant performance as Tom/Joey’s brother Richie. Complete with carefully furbished Philadelphia accent and a grotesque goatee, Hurt does his most wildly enjoyable work in years. It’s not a subtle or particularly credible performance but it’s enormous fun and the film needs it.
Actors love Cronenberg and it’s not hard to see why. He makes the most of every single moment a performer is on screen, offering quirky moments to briefly glimpsed characters such as Jack’s friend Judy and the henchmen brought by Fogerty. His handling of the child actors is exemplary and neither Viggo Mortensen or Maria Bello have done anything quite as good as this before. Mortensen is a somewhat closed-off actor and this slight emotional limitation is perfect for this part as envisioned by Cronenberg and writer Josh Olsen but he manages to persuade us that two entirely paradoxical personalities are existing within one consciousness. It’s less surprising to see Ed Harris being as good as he is here – he’s always good – but it’s still worth mentioning his contribution and there are memorable bits from Stephen MacHattie and Greg Bryk as the thwarted robbers. None of the actors is required to go through the extensive body make-up so characteristic of some of Cronenberg’s earlier work but fans of gore will be pleased to note a particularly nasty make-up effect on MacHattie’s face which is reminiscent of Dick Smith’s work on Scanners.
There’s a huge question in the film about fantasy and reality. I’m not talking about the bizarre analysis of the opening scene as the dream of a five year old girl but about the levels on which the film works. Clearly, the opening references to ‘shadow monsters’ are relevant to the narrative – what is Joey if not Tom’s shadow monster – and as the film is largely told from the perspective of the hero, it’s not always easy to tell whether events are intended to be taken literally. The way in which Tom/Joey seems to effortlessly turn into an efficient assassin, his somewhat clumsy but very efficient slaying of the robbers in his diner; both of these suggest the way a quiet man might want to see himself reacting in an extreme situation. At the end of the film, Tom seems to have conquered his shadow monster and, as the script said on the final page, there’s hope. Cronenberg rejects the reading of the film as fantasy, incidentally, but it’s still a suggestive possibility. All of his best films operate on a number of levels, all of which combine to produce a very stimulating viewing experience.
This is the R1 release from New Line and is therefore the slightly different US ‘R’ Rated version. However, the two scenes are no different in terms of length, merely in intensity of bloodletting and sound effects. Cronenberg doesn’t think the differences are significant and I’m inclined to agree with him but if you want the film as seen in cinemas in the UK then get the R2 release.
The 1.85:1 transfer is excellent, doing full justice to the rich cinematography. There is plenty of detail in evidence and the colours are suitably striking. It does look a little too grainy in places and there is undoubtedly some edge enhancement at times but I don’t think there’s too much to complain about.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is rich and full, making use of the surrounds to fill out the music but never bashing us over the head with unnecessary sound. Howard Shore’s lovely score comes across very well indeed.
The best extra feature is a commentary track from Cronenberg which is well up to his usual high standard. Cronenberg commentaries aren’t likely to please people who want lots of laughs or gossip but as a guide to his modus operandi, they are invaluable. He takes his work seriously but isn’t precious about it and he has the ability to suggest readings without imposing them as the only possible ones. He talks consistently throughout the running time with only a few quiet spots.
Apart from the commentary track, the centrepiece of the extras is a 66 minute documentary called “Acts of Violence”. This goes through the making of the film in a pleasingly relaxed manner with a good deal of behind-the-scenes footage and some good interviews. Cronenberg is as eloquent as ever and it’s nice to hear from some of his regular cronies such as Carol Spier, Peter Suschitzky and Ronald Sanders. Everyone concerned seems to have a lot of respect for the director, marvelling in his ability to work without a great deal of written preparation, instead using his experience and instinct to form a plan of action. The actors who are interviewed also come over well; Viggo Mortensen, for example, is shown to have a hitherto unsuspected sense of humour.
“Scene 44” is a deleted scene which, as most critics have commented, has a Cronenbergian body-horror element which is largely missing from the finished film. It’s a dream sequence involving Tom and Carl Fogerty and Cronenberg’s reasons for omitting it are covered in a short featurette (which also examines how the scene was devised and executed) and an optional commentary track. I think he was right to leave it out – it disturbs the narrative flow at a key point in the film – and it doesn’t add anything significant to the characters or story.
“Too Commercial For Cannes” takes us through the film’s appearance and promotion at the Cannes Film Festival, offering us a view of Cronenberg at his most relaxed and engaging, while “Violence’s History” studies the two small differences between the US and international versions. Finally, we get a trailer for the film and some ‘sneak peeks’ which consist of an unspeakable Antonio Banderas vehicle about ballroom dancing and a couple of things I’ve never heard of and never want to see again.
There are optional subtitles for the film and, pleasingly, for all of the extra features bar the commentary track.