Monday, 16 November 2015

A History of Violence

Title: A History of Violence
Director: David Cronenberg
Released: 2005
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, William Hurt, Ashton Holmes, Ed Harris, Stephen McHattie, Greg Bryk

Plot: Tom (Mortensen) a mild mannered diner owner living in the small town of Millbrook, Indiana who after foiling an attempted robbery finds himself becoming a local celebrity. However despite his attempts to return to a normal life, he instead finds himself and his family being stalked by a scarred gangster (Harris) who insists that Tom is not who he says he is.

Review:  Despite being known for his love of body horror on which he’d built his reputation, it was clear when this film was released that Cronenberg was keen to move on and explore different themes and ideas, than his cornerstones of mutation, disease and infection which had shape nearly all his previous films. However starting with the much overlooked “Spider” and followed by this film it was clear that he had turned a corner in his career and arguably for the better, Cronenberg perhaps realising that he’d really pushed his body horror obsessions as far as he could.

This however is not to mean that he has lost any of his edge as he opens with a pair of thugs checking out of their motel, only to tease out the fate of the motel clerk and manager, while the pair banter back and forth between themselves. In fact I was surprised to find this film more visceral than I remembered with the central diner heist quickly turning nasty before reaching its gruesome payoff while we also early on get treated to a graphic oral sex scene and clumsy cheerleader roleplay between Tom and his wife which will prove a tender comparison to the rough stairwell sex they have when *Spoilers alert* Tom’s former life is revealed.

This film also marks the first of three films he has to date made with Viggo Mortensen with the other two being the spiritual sequel to this film “Eastern Promises” and his Jung / Freud biopic “A Dangerous Method”. It’s clear though from this first collaboration that the two certainly work well together as Mortensen believably plays both sides of his character first as the mild mannered and soft spoken family man and later as his sadistic and violent gangster personality which he has been hiding all these years from his wife and family.

Despite being based on the graphic novel of the same name, released through DC Comics “Vertigo” imprint, the film actually improves on the source material by focusing on the main story of Tom and the life he thought he’d escaped and in turn cutting out the heavy use of flashbacks that made up much of the original story. In doing so Cronenberg really hones in on the meat of the story, while a tight runtime keeps the action and suspense flowing, even when it takes in subplots as Tom’s eldest son having to deal with a bullying head jock, whose dislike of him comes merely from having caused him to lose a game of softball, which makes the intensity of the bullying all the more baffling. It is unclear whether Cronenberg knew the screenplay was based on a comic book, especially when he has so frequently been outspoken on his disdain for the genre perhaps making this this first and only dabble with the genre.

Here Cronenberg once again assembles a strong cast, though at time Maria Bello comes off far too wooden especially during her seduction scenes which ultimately come off more clumsy than sexy. Still this film really hinges on the performances of both Mortensen and Ed Harris who despite his heavily scared face manages to prove himself a terrifying threat even without the threat of violence as he provides the same sort of relentless torment to Tom and his family he almost manages to rival Ben Kingsley in "Sexy Beast" only without the same prophanity riddled meltdown.

The violence throughout the film while frequently explicit is used with such reserve here, that when do get a moment of violence it remains shocking even if some of the fight scenes especially are so over the top such as the scenes in which Tom is forced to dispatch a group of gangsters threatening his family or the diner robbery. At the same time it’s clear that he’s aware of his abilities and frequently is shown trying to avoid conflict, not only to avoid revealing his previous life, but also you feel to avoid tapping into the side of him he might not be able to supress again, especially if we are to believe any of the tales we are told of his former life one which he is clearly clean to put behind him making the final scenes all the more poignant as he puts his guns to earth and cleanses himself of his sins in the lake before returning to his family, the last scene showing the family wanting to move on while the events of the film are clearly still hanging over them as they try to present the image of a happy family.

This is easily one of Cronenberg’s most accessible films to date especially when it plays more like a traditional thriller while here he shows himself more than capable of producing interesting and engaging films without body horror, while being carried by some strong performances especially by Mortensen who plays both sides of Tom perfectly and making this a thriller with real bite.

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