David Cronenberg’s latest film is a dark and intelligent look at the violence that lurks in small town America.
Like his previous film Spider it is more low key and restrained work than previous efforts like The Fly or Crash but it still packs a considerable punch, even though the latter stages have an uneasy, almost comic tone. It is as arresting and disturbing as his early films, but moves at a deceptively slower pace, making the violence – when it happens – all the more shocking.
The story begins with two murderers descending on a small Midwest town. When they hold up a coffee shop, the seemingly quiet owner Tom (Viggo Mortensen) becomes a local hero by taking them on and killing them both. On the face of it Tom has a simple life with his loving wife Edie (Maria Bello) and two children Jack (Ashton Holmes) and Sarah (Heidi Hayes). But his appearance on the local news attracts the attention of a menacing stranger named Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris) who arrives in town and is convinced Tom is actually an ex-killer from Philadelphia called Joey Cusack. Despite Tom’s denials he soon starts to threaten the previously tightknit family and their way of life, to the point where Edie and his children begin to have their doubts.
The central plot strand of the film is the mystery of Tom’s past. Does he have a history of violence (as the title might suggest) or is this a horrible case of mistaken identity? Cronenberg skilfully teases out the question for most of the film and Mortensen gives a nicely restrained performance that keeps us guessing. There is also an interesting subplot involving his son Jack that neatly mirrors – and ultimately converges with – the main one. Bullied by his schoolmates, Jack is inspired by his father’s heroics and engages in a violent revenge against those harassing him. However, the revenge he takes has a sickening quality quite out of step with the phony high-school heroics Hollywood often throws up.
Aside from the suspense, the film also poses some interesting and difficult questions about violence and the extent to which it is justified. Is Tom a hero? Can violence be justified if it is in a ‘good cause’? Is it something we can ever escape? Cronenberg has often used disease as a metaphor in his films (e.g. Shivers, The Fly) and although this film is different in tone to his early work, violence is treated almost like a disease, infecting a seemingly normal family and the community they live in. While A History of Violence takes a couple of missteps towards its climax, it remains as impressive and absorbing as the best of Cronenberg’s work.
> Official Site
> IMDb Link
> Watch the trailer
> JG Ballard writing on A History of Violence in The Guardian
> IGN FilmForce interview the director and stars of the film
> The Plasma Pool – A Cronenberg fansite
> Fansite with some older interviews with Cronenberg
> Senses of Cinema with a lengthy article on Cronenberg
> Salon profile on Cronenberg (from 1999 but still worth reading)