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David Cronenberg hasn't directed anything that could specifically be deemed a horror film for twenty years now (1986's THE FLY by my count). And yet, genre fans continue to be enthralled by whatever he has to offer. The reason for this is multi-faceted. For one thing, fans remember how he began so like George Romero before him and Peter Jackson after him, he will always be of interest to the faithful. Another reason is that Cronenberg's subjects and likewise the manner in which he translates those subjects to the screen are so interesting and fresh that his films rise above any one specific genre. Was CRASH erotica or was it a prophecy of the end of days? Was EXISTENZ sci-fi or satire? Was NAKED LUNCH fantasy, drug picture, biopic or all of the above and more? Entire books could be and have been written trying to examine this phenomena. And yet, Cronenberg remains elusive and fascinating. That is the definition of a fearless artist. And although it seems almost impossible to be writing this, A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE at the very least marks Cronenberg's greatest achievement since 1988's DEAD RINGERS.
Based on a graphic novel, A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE transports us to a small Indiana town, the type of place where minor goings on in the local Chamber of Commerce routinely grace the front page of the local paper. It is a place where everyone and no one stand out and that's just the way Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) likes it. He is a mild-mannered and soft-spoken man, a simple blue-collar guy who runs his own diner and greets his customers with a friendly salutation and a semi-energetic grin. He has been happily married for almost twenty years and has two children.
One night, Tom's average existence is shattered when two reckless, cold-blooded killers enter the establishment. Their clear intention is to rob the diner and kill every last person in it, and a previous chilling sequence reveals that they are very willing and able to do just that. In a split-second decision, Tom leaps on the opportunity to kill the two criminals. His quick thinking and selfless act turns him into a local hero. Tom would rather not be the center of attention and indeed there seems to be a great deal of discomfort that he is revered for killing two people.
Then things get much worse when another stranger dressed in black enters his establishment a few days later. Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris) politely antagonizes Tom, and what's more insists that Tom isn't who he says he is. Fogarty is convinced that Tom is actually Joey Cusack, a sadistic gangster who years ago blinded him in one eye. Fogarty continues to harass Tom and his family, demanding that Tom return to Philadelphia and reunite with Joey Cusack's brother (William Hurt). The tension continues to grow as Tom realizes his act of heroism may wind up killing him and the people he loves.
Most directors would be happy to let the already arresting story speak for itself, knowing that the twists and turns the film offers will keep anyone entertained. But as usual, David Cronenberg offers us a subtle and haunting film that explores a number of issues in modern society. The American Dream is deconstructed (even though the film was shot in Ontario) as we examine what it is we all want. Tom's son (Ashton Holmes) doesn't fit in with the local townsfolk. He does what is expected, trying to make friends and participating in sports. But the possibly homosexual kid still has to face down the bigots and the bullies. He would like to lash out at them, but does what is expected and refrains from physical violence. When his own father is celebrated for facing down his enemies with brute force, it's confusing to him. If violence doesn't solve anything, how did it work out for his father? And if the father is the one who preached nonviolence, doesn't that make him a bit of a hypocrite? What's more, is there more than one solution to a problem?
Identity is also a central theme in Cronenberg's film. As Fogarty continues to demand Joey Cusack come out and show himself, we begin to see traces of Joey in Tom. Whether this is a reaction to the crisis at hand is not revealed until much later, and we learn that there are many faces to the seemingly complacent personalities in the microcosm of small town America. To illustrate this, there are two love scenes in the film. Neither show much in the realm of nudity, but while one is playful and tender, the other is brutal and savage. Both are highly effective in their own right and it is at once refreshing and disturbing to realize that the same two people, both showing radically different facets of their personalities, are in both scenes.
Cronenberg has a knack for eliciting great performances from his actors that don't approach the hamminess the material would tempt (Okay, so Stephen Lack was God-awful in SCANNERS but we've all matured since then). In his first post-Aragorn role (HIDALGO was filmed in 2002), Mortensen manages to avoid becoming a follow action character actor a la Christopher Lambert. His portrayal as Tom Stall is among the best of 2005. If he didn't get noticed, it's an easy oversight. He did not play a famous person, nor does he show flamboyant fireworks. Instead, he offers a calm and assured role that reveals layers and layers of complex emotions just below the surface. As the film escalates, we see more and more the slow burn hidden within his stare, within that down home smirk, and behind the deceptive soft-spokenness.
Also worth noting is Maria Bello, who is turning into one of our great and underappreciated actresses. Her recent roles have successfully blotted out any foul taste from COYOTE UGLY. To say that she merely plays the suffering wife in A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE would be a profound insult to both the film and the actress. Showing all of the range and skill of Diane Lane at her best, Bello better have a little gold statue in the near future.
Ed Harris is pure villainy all the way, giving the cyclopean Fogarty a near-demonic weight. His presence never fails to raise the hairs on your arm. William Hurt, in a role for which he received an Oscar nom, plays an even bigger heavy with gusto.
One of the more interesting things about A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE is the way that it deals with its namesake topic. Most of Cronenberg's films have featured moments of extreme violence, especially those in his earlier years. Yet, Cronenberg has never suggested that the violence should be there for entertainment's sake and has in fact rebuked such notions in films like VIDEODROME and EXISTENZ. Here, he pushes that envelope a little further. Cronenberg consciously does not glorify the violence within the film by showing the consequences of such real-life acts of violence. Here, consequences manifest themselves into the form of bloodthirsty mobsters, who seem to appear like flies that have sniffed out a rotting corpse. But what this does is merely give focus to how all of Tom's external relationships are affected by his act. Certain people seem all to eager to shake Tom's hand while others are unsure of how to view him, knowing there is a beast within him.
But at the same time, Tom deals with the catch-22 of the situation. After all, the alternative to his actions would result in not only his death, but the deaths of his employees, customers and friends. Should he have given into the violence about to inflicted upon him, or should he react, even if that ironically means giving into his own violent impulses? It's the Darwinian conceit of survival of the fittest, and this evolution rears its ugly head in no win situations such as these. In the end, we are all beasts and our survival does not depend on wallowing in that fact nor in denying it but in balancing it with what is most pure � the care we show one another. Violence is a bitch, but its the motivation that is key. Whether the violence is used to protect or exploit is what makes us into who we are.
Cronenberg's film gives us complex issues to discuss, disguising it under the innocuous manifestation of a straight-forward thriller. It is one of the most arresting and thought-provoking films in his already legendary canon.