A History of Violence
Directed by David Cronenberg. Starring Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, Ed Harris, William Hurt, Ashton Holmes. (2005, R, 96 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Sept. 30, 2005
Throughout his career as a director of high-minded horror films, David Cronenberg has focused on the linkage between acts of individual horror and the cultural ubiquity of violence. Until recently, the violence has always stood apart from humanity, seeping into our pores from outside sources and poisoning the characters’ lives in films such as Rabid, The Brood, Scanners, Videodrome, The Fly, The Dead Zone, Dead Ringers, and many more. Sometimes the seepage is the result of medical experiments gone awry and sometimes the result of bodily functions gone haywire, but the malfunction is always abetted by human hubris, misunderstanding, and complacency. Visually and thematically, Cronenberg’s horror has always been identifiable by its focus on the viscera, the cellular level at which horror invades our gut, multiplies, and regurgitates back into the culture from whence it came. In recent films, however, Cronenberg’s horror has become more externalized. From the sexual fetishists of Crash to the mentally deranged central character of Spider, and now the mobsters of A History of Violence, Cronenberg now seems to be creating characters whose violence is intrinsic – not something completely implanted by external forces but a virus that resides within. A History of Violence implicitly tackles the old question of nature vs. nurture: What are we born with and what do we acquire from our environment? This new Cronenberg film (written by Josh Olson from a graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke) is less like a horror film in the sense of there being inexplicable creepie-crawlies scurrying about and more like a human drama colored blood red by the intrusion of inexplicable violence. Tom Stall (Mortensen), his wife, Edie (Bello), and their two kids live a quiet life in the small, everyone-knows-everyone-else town of Millbrook, Ind. Tom and Edie, who’ve been married about 20 years, remain very much in love, as the film’s opening sequences – including a graphic sex scene – demonstrate. But then an act of sudden, horrific violence invades the diner that Tom operates, and the slow-to-burn family man responds with lightning reflexes. His heroism turns him into a media celebrity, which causes mobster Carl Fogarty (Harris) to enter his life claiming that Tom is really a lethal killer from Philly named Joey Cusack. Is it a case of mistaken identity or is it really possible for someone to so thoroughly alter their personality or DNA? That’s the kind of thing this movie would have us ponder while watching it unfold. To what degree can a wife ever fully know her husband? And Tom’s teenaged son’s travails with the local high school bully foreshadow the way in which violence perhaps carries over from one generation to the next. And would any of these characters be able to survive if they didn’t have a violent component in their natures? That said, Cronenberg doesn’t stint on violent imagery: We see faces blown off with shotguns, pools of blood, violent sex, and other disturbing images with great regularity. As mobsters, Harris and Hurt create characters that are so deliciously malevolent and original that their performances alone make the movie worthwhile. A History of Violence poses the right question: Are those who don’t study history doomed to repeat it?