Wednesday, April 4, 2007

From The Vault: A History of Violence

Director: David Cronenberg
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, Ed Harris, William Hurt, Ashton Holmes, Heidi Hayes, Stephen McHattie, Greg Bryk, Peter MacNeill

Running Time: 96 min.

Rating: R

Release Date: 2005

**** (out of ****)

Spoiler Warning! This review contains spoilers and gives away key plot points.

It's often said that certain directors are experts at "establishing a mood" in a film. Very few filmmakers have done as good a job with this in any recent film than David Cronenberg does within the first half hour to forty minutes of 2005's A History of Violence. In many ways the whole movie hinges on what he does within that time frame to draw us into the story. The Canadian filmmaker best known for his shocking horror and science fiction films (including Scanners, Dead Ringers and the underrated eXistenZ) is remarkably restrained here and that restraint makes the violence that comes later that much more horrific.

Despite its title, the film ( which is loosely adapted from the 1997 graphic novel by John Wagner) actually isn't your typically violent motion picture. It's not interested in being that. It's more interested in what causes it. Typical of Cronenberg's films, the violence we do see is graphic and brutal, but this time it doesn't eat up a tremendous amount of screen time and its placement within the context of the story is carefully chosen. This is an intelligent meditation on violence and how it can intrude on our daily lives when we least expect it and shake us to our core. In this day and age, where the depiction of violence in the media is more scrutinized than ever, it's a relief to see a film that doesn't just show violence, but explores it.

Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) is a local diner owner who lives in small town Indiana with his loving wife, Edie (Maria Bello), teenage son Jack (Ashton Holmes) and small daughter Sarah (Heidi Hayes). One evening at work he becomes a local hero when he kills two armed robbers who hold up the diner and threaten the lives of the customers and employees. The story receives some national exposure and attracts the attention of some mysterious men in black suits, who come to town to pay Tom a visit. The leader of this group is the facially disfigured Carl Fogarty (a scary Ed Harris), who's a member of Philadelphia's Irish Mafia and swears that Tom is really a man named "Joey Cusak." He claims they have a score to settle because it was "Joey" who shredded half his face with a barbed wire 20 years ago. Tom, who claims he's never seen Fogarty in his life and doesn't have a clue who this "Joey" is, enlists the help of the local sheriff (Peter MacNeill) to protect him and his family from this growing threat.

The more Tom denies he's "Joey" the more menacing a presence Fogarty becomes in him and his family's lives. He stalks his wife and daughter while they shop and drives past the diner to mess with Tom's head. Meanwhile at school, Tom's son Jack is having problems of his own as he's constantly being picked on by a school bully, but can't find the guts to fight back despite his rage growing exponentially by the day. This sub-plot, which seems inconsequential at first glance strongly reflects the theme of the film and becomes much more important later. Thus far, the story is essentially a mystery and a very effective one. Is Tom telling the truth? Is this just simply a case of mistaken identity? Or, is Tom hiding a violent, criminal past from his family and friends? Read no further if you don't want the answer.

Tom is really "Joey Cusak" and he was a member of the mob 20 years ago when he disfigured Carl Fogerty. He put that part of his life behind him (or so he thought) and started anew as Tom Stall in small town Indiana. Does the mean he's been living a lie? To Tom it doesn't because in his mind "Joey" has been dead for the past 20 years and he started over. The cleverness in the script is that Tom himself is so convinced that he's no longer that man that we, like his wife, really believe him when he tells us he has no idea why these guys have come to town.

Early on we do have some doubts about whether this guy is telling the truth but we don't want to listen to them because Mortensen plays Tom as a nice, laid back guy we'd love to have as our next door neighbor. You could actually imagine him coming over, popping open a couple of beers and sitting on your couch watching the game. However, when his diner is held up it brings something out of Tom he thought was dormant. He was in a hopeless situation and had no choice but to react the only way he could: violently. He's a hero for it, but his actions had the unfortunate consequence of digging "Joey Cusak" from the grave. When those men identify him, Tom has no choice but to defend his family, while at the same time struggle to keep his dark secret from them.

A History of Violence
is ultimately about disguises. The film opens with two men (played by Stephen McHattie and Greg Bryk) calmly checking out of a motel. Cronenberg makes us think the movie will be about them, especially after we realize they've left two dead bodies in their wake. That's just a front though and one of the many disguises in the movie. We quickly shift gears into this small, idyllic Indiana town where everything in it seems to be straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting, especially the marriage between Tom and Edie. In this way, the opening of this film reminded me of David Lynch's Blue Velvet (which makes sense since Cronenberg is like Lynch's twisted cousin as a filmmaker), where we're given a perfect picture of small town America, but there's something that seems just slightly off.

We just have a feeling that something will happen. We're not sure exactly what it is, but it's coming and our stomachs sink with dread at the thought of what it may be. Cronenberg brilliantly creates that mood and unwinds the narrative slowly, allowing us to get to know and care for Tom and his family before the hold up takes place, then shocks us and springs the movie forward in unexpected ways. Like the character of Tom, Cronenberg's movie wears a disguise for it's first act.

When Edie eventually does find out Tom's secret she's obviously devasted she hasn't been married to the man she thought she was all these years. Their lives are a lie. This leads to the most controversial scene of the movie where they have rough, violent sex on the staircase. I'm sure there are many who will find that scene implausible. Why would this woman who just found out she's been lied to all these years by her husband (and also discovered he's a killer) want to sexually ravage him? The answer to that question is in an earlier scene at the beginning of the film where Edie dresses up as a cheerleader to turn Tom on. They're role-playing, except this time Tom's doing the dressing up. As "Joey." She doesn't want to have sex with Tom, but with "Joey," the mysterious and violently dangerous new man in her life. "Joey" becomes Tom's cheerleader costume and one of the many disguises Cronenberg uses to maximum effect in this film.

If this were any other film, the revelation of this gigantic secret would cause the story to deteriorate into a violent, action-adventure territory. Instead, Cronenberg uses the secret to dig deeper into the lives of the characters and what makes them tick. Possibly no one is more affected by this revelation than Tom's son Jack, a shy reserved kid who has now just been thrown into a world of violence and it changes him in ways he probably never thought possible. All of it is manifested perfectly in Ashton Holmes' incredibly subtle performance and leads to one of the best scenes in the film where he finally stands up for himself and Cronenberg puts us in an interesting position where we're not sure whether to cheer or cringe in horror.

To end it all and protect his family Tom ultimately has no choice but to "Joey's" old stomping grounds of Philadelphia to settle the score with his own brother, mob boss Richie Cusak (William Hurt in an Oscar nominated supporting role). Now before going into this film I was informed that Hurt was nominated for Best Supporting Actor despite being in the film for just a couple of scenes.

There have been instances in the past where I felt actors have come close to deserving award recognition despite enjoying just a few minutes of screen time (Rodney Dangerfield's cameo appearance in Natural Born Killers comes to mind), but doubted Hurt could make that much of an impact in so little time. I mean we're already three quarters of the way through the movie at this point. I was wrong. From the second Hurt makes his appearance he creates a character so bizarre and unlike anything you've ever seen that even if you remember nothing else about this movie, his Richie Cusak, for better or worse, will be ingrained in your conciousness forever. He doesn't just chew the scenery, he eats this movie for dinner and he only needs about 10 minutes to do it.

Even at its climax, where the movie turns into a violent, bloody showdown the focus is really on the redemption of Tom Stall. When it's all over, he doesn't go to the river to just wash the blood of his brother off his hands. He's cleansing himself of "Joey Cusak." The final shot of the film is especially brilliant and emotionally moving as Tom returns home with his place waiting for him at the dinner table. Things must go back to normal, but the Stall family knows nothing will ever really be the same again.

I had a tough time believing this was actually adapted from a graphic novel, because the story is so deep and complex. Supposedly the graphic novel deals in much greater detail with Tom's time in the mob and is more of a violent gangster story. Screenwriter Josh Olson made a great move by choosing not to go in that direction but instead examine the themes the novel suggests. In doing so he puts us in the position of the characters, wondering what we would do in a similar situation. It helps that the situation is not far-fetched in the slightest and is completely grounded in the reality Cronenberg establishes within the first half hour. I was convinced everything that happens in this film could really occur.

The performances, particularly of Mortensen and Bello as a seemingly happy all American couple, go a long way in establishing that. Bello might one of the most underrated supporting actresses working today and here she's given her most unglamorous role and convincingly portrays a loving wife who's world has been turned upside down. Mortensen, in the performance of his career, plays a cool, laid back guy yet has no problems flipping on a dime to make us believe there's a man with violent tendencies hiding just beneath the surface. Cronenberg has said in interviews that the title of the film can be interpreted in two ways. As our country's ingrained legacy of violence that we struggle against every day or a human being's capability of violence that resides in all of us. Whichever it is, you can be sure that A History of Violence is a film you'll never forget.

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