Pulling Focus: A History of Violence (2005)

“[David Cronenberg] has been, film for film, the most audacious and challenging director in the English-speaking world.”

– J. Hoberman


Murder ballads

Toronto, Canada’s most incendiary favorite son, director David Cronenberg’s name is synonymous with a cinematic subgenre he essentially created––”body horror.” And certainly his deft psychological thriller from 2005, A History of Violence, presents no short supply of viscerally graphic anatomy-centric aversion and blitz, but it also presents a subtler, and much more resigned catechizing into society’s often atavistic bottom line.

What begins as a coolly elegant drama set amidst an almost clichéd small town, it’s a film that soon lays waste to the cherished American allegory of self-reinvention as it mutates into a startling subjective nightmare. The quirky complexity that Cronenberg’s enthusiasts expect reveals itself in frightening new ways, and it’s quite possible that A History of Violence is the director’s most unforgettable monument to American mythos.

“If not the best, [A History of Violence] is one of the best movies I’ve ever been in. There’s no such thing as a perfect movie, but in the way that that script was handled, the way it was shot … it’s a perfect film noir movie, or it’s close to perfect I should say.”

– Viggo Mortensen


I am the killer of people


Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen, excellent) is a soft-spoken small-town family man who can get red in tooth and claw when provoked, particularly after two sadistic hoodlums (Greg Bryk and Stephen McHattie) arrive at Tom’s diner looking for trouble. Tom, we soon see, is cruelly capable of inflicting serious bodily harm as he kills the two men after they bully a waitress and try to rob the restaurant.

Tom’s lethal reprisal thrusts him into the spotlight––Millbrook, Indiana is the kind of sleepy town where newsworthy events seldom ever arise––and suddenly this personable and plain-spoken patriarch is being dubbed an “American hero,” by the press.

His ferocious self-defense suggests a secret yesterday; Tom’s loving wife, Edie (Maria Bello), his teenage son Jack (Ashton Holmes), and his daughter Sarah (Heidi Hayes) see him in a different light. What’s more, the national media attention also attracts a formidable Philadelphia gangster, Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris), with one hell of a chip on his shoulder.

Carl sees Tom on television only he knows him to be one Joey Cusack, and he wants revenge. “Tom Stall”, it turns out, is an identity that he fashioned for a specific reason, and, once revealed, of course Tom/Joey’s homicidal history will affect his present, and do what, exactly, to his wife and family?

“Is Canadian director David Cronenberg the most unsung maverick artist in movies? Bet on it… Cronenberg knows violence is wired into our DNA. [A History of Violence] showed how we secretly crave what we publicly condemn. This is potent poison for a thriller, and unadulterated, unforgettable Cronenberg.”

– Peter Travers, Rolling Stone


Bang and blame

A History of Violence William Hurt

Of course Cronenberg’s matter-of-course nadir is jutting in the edges––splatter effects and sickeningly macabre makeup effects are used with restraint. The reality of brutality is used to shocking efficacy and terrible strength. And yet A History of Violence is uncommonly contemplative and artfully inferred for a crime thriller of this sort. There’s a laconic pace, succinct, and reliant on details of domestic life as it is on the action requirements for a genre film.

The emotional crux of the film belongs within Tom’s wavering marriage. As his relationship with Edie moves unsteadily it’s crucial for the integrity and intimation of the film that the viewer acquiesce two emotionally inflected sex scenes between them; before and after Tom’s secret is exposed. Something of a coup de mâitre, these explicit sequences, visually tense, artfully amorous, and edging into voyeuristic, epitomizes the intense intelligence that Cronenberg has displayed in his strongest works.

Invariably testing the audience and their attitudes to violence, the film wisely assesses American culture, prying into and provoking the recognized knowledge that every individual has the right to peace and cessation in their own home. And while it says and celebrates these accepted American freedoms, A History of Violence also observes gun culture as it eulogizes gun terrorism and the fetishizes that go along with it.

“[A History of Violence] does ask the audience to twist and turn in terms of tone. It’s funny and then it’s immediately shocking and then immediately scary and then funny again and then sad and emotional — it does all that. It’s a dangerous thing to do and it can backfire.”

– David Cronenberg


He’ll rekindle all the dreams it took you a lifetime to destroy

At first blush a modern-day crime thriller, A History of Violence is also a perversely playful cross-genre amalgam, with lineage in the most American of genres, the Western. Without even looking hard it’s a trouble to miss that Mortensen’s withdrawn man with a troubled past is cut from the same cloth as Gary Cooper or Clint Eastwood’s many celebrated brooding and contemplative Western heroes.

The aforementioned underlay of eroticism also suggests the exploitation films that Cronenberg first explored, and the convincing and vexing examination of hero worship, courage, and the equal, perhaps, allure of depravity also offers a seductive sheen.

A History of Violence gives the viewer a lot to read into, despite how deceptively simple its surface appears. We’re all voyeurs to violence and ruin, as this caustic cautionary fable warns, and it’s a marvellous and murderous pièce de résistance from one of the medium’s most exacting filmmakers.

Tom (played by Viggo Mortensen): “I’m here to make peace. Tell me what I gotta do to make things right.”
Richie (played by William Hurt): “You could do something I guess… You could die, Joey.”

Author Bio: Shane Scott-Travis is a film critic, screenwriter, comic book author/illustrator and cineaste. Currently residing in Vancouver, Canada, Shane can often be found at the cinema, the dog park, or off in a corner someplace, paraphrasing Groucho Marx. Follow Shane on Twitter @ShaneScottravis.