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Thursday, February 02, 2006

A History of Violence (2005)

You never know what you're going to get with David Cronenberg. Along with Wes Craven and John Carpenter, Cronenberg helped define the modern horror movie genre. Unlike Craven, who now has the flabby style of a champion boxer gone to seed, and Carpenter, who sold out in favor of sucking big Hollywood wang, Cronenberg pretty much does what he wants and manages to get the money to do it with. His productions are all over the map. In the past 25 years, he's given us The Dead Zone, Videodrome, The Fly, Dead Ringers, Naked Lunch, M. Butterfly and Spider, to name a few. Horror, drama, thrillers, sci-fi and very dark comedy all seem to be his forte. Now, with A History of Violence, Cronenberg presents us with a dramatic sociopolitical critique that falls slightly short of the greatness for which it was intended.

Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) lives a quiet, unassuming life in Millbrook, Indiana with his wife, Edie (Maria Bello), and their two kids, Jack (Ashton Holmes), 15, and Sarah (Heidi Hayes), 6. He runs the local diner, she's a successful lawyer, and they all live in a truly Norman Rockwellian farmhouse complete with a dog and a weather vane. Then, one dark and stormy night, two armed robbers knock over the diner, and we see that Tom is adept at kicking ass and chewing bubblegum (this scene is one of the most graphic in the film, containing a horrifyingly realistic gun shot wound to the face). Tom is immediately rocketed to national news as the small town man who killed the big bad outlaws. This news attracts the attention of an Irish mobster named Fogarty (Ed Harris), who comes to town with his entourage of thumbreakers in black limousines and insists that Tom is actually a mobster named Joey Cusack. Fogarty is pissed at Joey Cusack for a number of reasons, primarily because years ago Joey tore up his face with a bunch of barbed wire and destroyed one of his eyes. Tom insists that he's not Joes, Fogarty insists that he is, and we the audience are intended to vacillate, if only for a few minutes, between the two options.

I've read some other reviews of this film that refuse to reveal the truth about Tom's real identity. To me, however, the "is-he-or-isn't-he?" question is not the real point of the film. Not only that, but we are only left to wonder about the matter for a very short time before it becomes obvious. The theme of false identities is seen throughout the film. It begins with a steamy scene of Mortensen and Bello in bed, with Bello dressed up like a cheerleader and Mortensen pretending to be her boyfriend. From this innocent roleplaying, Cronenberg pulls us into the fake roles we play in everyday life. So what is the real identity here, the assassin or the family man? A similar idea was put forth by Bill in Kill Bill vol. 2, when he said that Batman has to put on a mask to be Batman, but Superman has to put on a costume to be Clark Kent.

A History of Violence asks many important social questions, such as whether violence is an inevitability and whether murder can ever be justified. It tricks you into liking Tom a lot, only to pull a 180 and make you question your own values. Sometimes these messages get a little heavy, however; there is a subplot with Tom's son and his own natural violent tendencies that is given too much screen time. Frankly, Ashton Holmes does not have the acting chops to make these scenes work, and they feel out of place as a result. Furthermore, the film has slightly lopsided pacing, with its 97 minutes feeling more like two hours. All in all, however, this is one of Cronenberg's best films, and one of the better films I have seen this year in theatres. I cannot fathom why Ed Harris doesn't just get an Oscar in the mail every year. He's that good.
Mortensen is also awesome, delivering a powerful yet subtle performance that reminded me of his restrained-yet-violent character in Albino Alligator.

Amount of money I would pay to see this movie: $6

MPAA: Rated R for strong brutal violence, graphic sexuality, nudity, language and some drug use.
Runtime: 96 min
Country: USA
Language: English
Color: Color


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