A History of Violence
Since moving images where first committed to film violence has played a large part of drawing an audience. Directors have been propelled to the same notoriety as actors simply by pushing violence to the limit and a little beyond. In order to make the violence real to the audience they have to empathize with the people involved. Those viewing these acts must come to believe that they can be the victim of such actions or that they can be pushed into performing them. In ĎA History of Violenceí David Cronenberg set the stage for the film with an idyllic look at life in the great American Midwest. Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) lives in Millbrook Indiana with his wife Edie (Maria Bello) and their two children; teenaged Jack (Ashton Holmes) and their young daughter Sarah (Heidi Hayes). It would appear that this is straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting. Tom runs the local diner, is a church going man, gives his time to the community and harbors a dark secret. When Tom suddenly explodes in an unexpected bout of fury to foil an armed robbery of his business all eyes are now focused on this local hero. Soon some very shady characters have come to town, lead by the dark suited and facially scared Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris). They have a keen interest in every aspect of Tomís life referring to him as ĎJoeyí and insisting they have an old score to settle. Fogarty is certain that Tom is the man that inflicted the horrible scars on his face by gouging his eye with barbed wire. Fogarty is anxious for his long awaited revenge. As a shadow falls over Tomís past his wife and son begin to have doubts. They but love him deeply but can they love a man that they donít really know? Even if Tom had this violent past he had to act when his diner was robbed. He instinctively knew that they wanted more than just the money; they would kill everyone in there. No matter what the consequences Tom had to act, as happens so often in real life a single moment in time can alter everything.
This film is excellent in its construction and execution. It works on both the personal level of Tomís history of violence but also on the grander scale of how our society views violence. Tomís notoriety was based on his violent response to an immediate danger. The public wanted to see the man that took out two armed robbers; they craved the vicarious thrill of experiencing violence while never facing its danger. For those that thought they knew Tom the best what struck them the most is how well Tom handled himself. It was anachronistic that such a mild manner man would know just how to defend himself so well against two armed and murderous men, killing them with such ease. What attracts the general public is revolting to Tomís family. When Edie woke up that faithful morning she could look over at her husband, the father of her children, her lover, with a certainty that this was a good, decent man. After the incident at the diner she realized that we can never really know the past of another. The core question raised by Fogarty is whether such perchance for violence is a natural, innate aspect of mankind or does it have to be trained into an individual? Can a man that goes to church and loves his family come to shoot like a Marine sharpshooter if the occasion demands it? There is also a bit of the old west here. Groups of thugs increasing in numbers start to come after Tom, each one trying to take out this local hero to gain a reputation. This spills over to his son who becomes the target of school yard toughs. Even if the actions where justifiable the results spread beyond the moment and the man who took those actions.
There is one thing about recent films by David Cronenberg, he knows how to attract the absolutely best actors to his projects. His casting is a work of art and this film is a prime example. After being the star of the most successful film trilogy ever, Ďthe Lord of the Ringí, Viggo Mortensen had to overcome the fantasy hero role of Aragorn and once again become a normally conflicted man. He is not saving all of Middle Earth here; he is just a man whose world has been turned upside down. Mortensen has the rugged good looks (just ask my daughter) and the serious acting talent to pull off this very difficult role. He draws the audience into the life of Tom Stall. We can identify with him wanting the peace and security he has worked hard to obtain. When violence erupts and he has to respond in kind we have to wonder what we would do in a similar situation. The dichotomy of the film works only because the audience can simultaneously believe both sides of the character that Mortensen presents. We accept him as a loving family man but also believe he is capable of killing two men that threaten others. Maria Bello is one of those working actors that people donít associate with being on the A-List. That is a shame since she is one of the most talented and versatile actresses around. She has a natural beauty that makes her seem approachable. Men in the audience can see her as a wife and girlfriend; the women can accept her as a friend. She gives Edie considerable depth to her personality, something most other actresses would be hard pressed to accomplish. I have seen many films featuring Ed Harris. While some of his films are naturally better than others I have never been disappointed with his performances. He is the consummate actor. He doesnít just portray a character he transforms into that person. There is a quiet quality to his performance. A truly dangerous man is not the one shouting out his threats, he waits and acts. This is how Harris presents Fogarty.
Say what you want about director David Cronenberg but it can never be said that his films are boring. He always brings his off centered view of the world to the screen with imagination. Here is a man that has openly denounces violence. His use of violence in his films is never apologetic, the violent acts here just are. They are the McGuffin in this film, a term coined by Alfred Hitchcock to denote something important to the characters in the film not the audience. The violence sets up the conflict in Tom and the motivation for Fogarty. Cronenberg is the master of style but he never lets that overwhelm his story telling ability. The plot is well woven and builds at exactly the right pace. This is perhaps the best work Cronenberg has done in years and is a must see if only for that. The story may be a re-working of the classic film noir flick, Out of the Past, but only Cronenberg can breathe such new life in the tale.
The DVD presentation of this film is impeccable and I expect nothing less from New Line Cinema. They remain one of the best DVD producers in the business and for good reason, the respect those that purchase their discs. The anamorphic video is flawless. The color palette is realistic with just the right temperature for each color. The contrast is perfect even when light and dark crash together. The Dolby 5.l audio has channel separation better than most films Iíve watched recently. The use of the rear speakers permits not only an excellent, full feel but is well used for audio effects. The audio commentary track by David Cronenberg is a brief tutorial on film making. He details the production choices he faced and remains entertaining to listen to. Even the deleted scenes come with his comments. It is great when the director can expose a little bit about way a scene didnít make the final cut. There is also a featurette about the difference in violence for versions of films in the U.S. and those for international release. This is not a film for the whole audience but if you are willing to take a trip away from the usual this is one to add to your collection.