Gratuitous violence in films, ever escalating violence which panders to an ever more jaded audience, has become commonplace from a film industry that reprehensibly chases box office receipts regardless of the malefic effects of its products on the fabric of civilized society. Ratings systems do little to ameliorate this plague and censorship is never an acceptable solution. Maybe there should be a parallel to the labels that warn that "This product may be harmful to your health."
David Cronenberg’s dark and disturbing film, A History of Violence, undeniably has some painfully violent scenes. But Cronenberg (Spider, Videodrome) is not exploiting. From a script by Josh Olson based on a graphic novel by John Wagner, Cronenberg examines the subject with thoughtful intelligence, delivering a riveting and insightful narrative which builds in momentum from start to finish.
Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen), happily married to Edie (Maria Bello), owns a cafe in Millbrook, Indiana, a fictional location clearly intended to be the archetypical mid-American small town, a peaceful place where people know one another, are generally respectful and kind, and get along comfortably as they go about their day-to-day lives. Is that a fiction? Sure, but Cronenberg has chosen to spin a fable here, so it’s a fiction that makes a point. When the Stalls’ daughter has a nightmare, they assure their kids that there’s "no such thing as monsters."
Enter a pair of itinerant, psychopathic hoodlums who take over the cafe with theft in mind and wanton brutality in their hearts. Stall, until that moment depicted as an easygoing, regular guy, unexpectedly turns the tables on the thugs, saves the day, and is widely hailed in the media as a hero. The resulting celebrity draws Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris) to town–a Philadelphia mobster with a badly scarred face who seems to have a bone to pick with Stall.
Piece by piece Cronenberg builds a portrait of a schizoid American pysche and civilization, a place of deceptive surface calm with an ingrained underside of violence, violence with a history. Stall’s teen-aged son, Jack (Ashton Homes), himself the victim of a bully at school, after observing his father’s behavior, reverts from turn-the-other-cheek avoidance to vicious retaliation, the model passing from one generation to the next. Escalating violence and revealed secrets severely test the cohesiveness of the Stall family. Covering many bases, Cronenberg touches in one scene on the edge of violence that is part and parcel of sexuality and in another on the roots of violence in sibling rivalry, harking back to Cain and Able.
Mortensen (Lord of the Rings, 28 Days) is front and center throughout the film and he carries it well enough with understatement; the performance works well for the small town good guy, but doesn’t fully convince on the darker underside of the character. Bello (Silver City, The Cooler) continues to shine in her depiction here of an intelligent, sensitive and comfortably sexual woman whose love is subjected to intense testing. (The unresolved ambiguity with which the film ends is a mastertouch of Cronenberg brilliance.) Particularly notable is Ashton Holmes, making his feature film debut. His portrayal of Jack has a remarkable emotional transparency that will be envied by many a more experienced actor. Holmes unerringly delineates the changes in the character of Jack as traumatic events unfold around him; those changes are at the very fulcrum of Cronenberg’s provocative theme.