David Cronenberg is a monster, and I mean that with respect. He’s created as impressive a body of work as any director in cinema. Over the course of a thirty-year transformation from artistically minded horror filmmaker to true artist, he’s taken genre filmmaking into deeply emotional territory, finally reaching a place where ‘genre’ doesn’t apply. All that while also intelligently tackling the biggest draws/stumbling blocks in cinema: sex and violence. And now, he’s harnessed a master’s skills to create one of the best films of 2005: A History of Violence.
Based on a razor-sharp script from Josh Olsen (loosely drawn from John Wagner and Vince Locke’s graphic novel), A History of Violence turns on a simple concept. When Tom Stall shoots two gunmen dead in his small-town diner, the past comes forward and his life changes in ways he and his family would previously have thought impossible.
The first thing you’ll notice is technique. Nothing is wasted; there is no excess. Like Miles Davis weaving a solo around a five-note melody, Cronenberg, Olsen and a phenomenal cast build a deep, resonant examination of the repercussions of violence. Here, the past doesn’t just return; it bangs on the door like an insistent but unpleasant relative, ready to paint Stall’s family life and future with a bright red brush.
Despite all appearances, and as you may already suspect, this is no mere gangland thriller. There are mobsters, yes, and even what the superficial might call a plot twist. But in an old-fashioned spirit of storytelling, these things are meant to be gut punches to the characters, not the audience. Feel free to go in thinking ‘thriller’, however. It’ll only make the experience more jarring.
For an audience simply looking for visceral thrills will find a film that asks something in return. Does A History Of Violence revel in the primal moments where men like Tom Stall burst into violence? Absolutely. It’s a human impulse, the movie says, and part of all of us. But the film also recognizes and gives higher priority to aftermath. The shock seen on the face of Stall’s son lingers, as does the horror in Tom’s eyes as he faces his family the in the days following his actions.
Once, David Cronenberg seemed more comfortable with prosthetics than actors. But he’s become quite the actor’s director, and History is packed with remarkably natural performances. Viggo Mortensen is no stranger to quiet, intense characters, so his introspective vision of Tom Stall doesn’t come as a surprise. What does is the efficiency with which he presents the character’s transformations and attendant sorrows. Matching him move for move is Maria Bello as Edie. Bello has never been better; she’s given the task of drawing us into a very uncomfortable family situation, and I can’t think of anyone who could have surpassed this performance.
It’s hard to stop praising the actors populating the film. There’s a uniformly high standard set that is matched, then raised by every participant. The work of Ed Harris and William Hurt is idiosyncratic and impeccable. Harris bites his lines like a pitbull, and Hurt’s weary ‘made man’ is destined to spawn leagues of imitators. Even the anonymous gunmen who set the plot in motion are humanized in a way few directors would chance. Relative newcomer Aston Holmes is impressive as Tom’s son Jack, who feels both the thrill and letdown of violent action. Less so is Heidi Hayes as younger daughter Sarah. She’s the film’s only real weak point, in fact, giving a performance that’s overly reliant on offscreen cues.
While most of the film’s population is described through a relationship to violence, Cronenberg has the audacity to offer much of the characterization of Tom and Edie Stall through a pair of sexual encounters. In one, the interaction is playful; loving and intimate in a way that speaks volumes about their marriage. The other is a mirror image, still consensual yet bracingly raw and desperate. It’s a fervent display of distrust. It leaves marks. Like every violent act in the film, these two scenes are as essential as credits and dialogue. A History of Violence does not disperse images recklessly.
So it’s difficult at first to come to terms with…well, the sheer Cronenberg-ness of the film’s physicality. A History of Violence is the bloodiest film the director has made since The Fly. Both times I’ve seen this film I thought of Irreversible during one of the killings — witnesses to both will immediately know which. Cronenberg’s films have often been reviled for the loving detail in which he examines how the human body breaks when exposed to unique pressures. But here he fully extends that attention to the soul, and the gristle isn’t what you’ll remember. Instead, what sticks is the lingering waste and pain of betrayal.
This is a hard-edged film that dispenses with simple resolutions and casual optimism. It invites a variety of interpretations and poses many questions. Can the past be erased, or at least surpassed? What is a good action worth, if it’s preceded by terrible deeds? Can violence be used where necessary, in a vacuum, or does it breed like vermin once out in the open?
Cronenberg has said that his first feature Shivers has an upbeat ending, if seen through the eyes of the film’s predatory creatures. Things have come full circle. If violence was imagined as a virus, then the two films are very much alike. Unlike that first feature, however, this film is the work of a filmmaker at the top of his game, and is absolutely essential viewing.