At the Movies with Alan Gekko: A History of Violence “05”

MPAA Rating: R/ Genre: Action Thriller/ Stars: Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, Ed Harris, William Hurt, Ashton Holmes, Peter MacNeill, Stephen McHattie, Greg Bryk, Kyle Schmid, Sumela Kay, Gerry Quigley, Deborah Drakeford, Heidi Hayes, Aidan Devine, Bill McDonald, Michelle McCree, Ian Matthews, R. D. Reid, Morgan Kelly/ Runtime: 98 minutes

Ok so for the start of this review I feel it is only pertinent if I share something that I can safely say that not a whole lot of people knew before I wrote this review. That of course being that when I took the time that very first time to actually sit down and give the slice of cinema I am reviewing today, 2005’s A History of Violence, I must confess that it had me more than just perplexed. Rather, I had completely and utterly no idea of just what in the heck I was supposed to make of it. Indeed perhaps I was just distracted because I had other things on my mind at the time, maybe I was just mildly annoyed that I couldn’t find anything else to watch, or maybe I was just thinking this would be something else given that this is a slice of cinema helmed by the same man who gave audiences such remarkable works as the highly underrated ExistenZ from the 90s, Videodrome, and the wonderful 1986 take on The Fly. At any rate and whatever the cause I finished the film with a frown on my face and the thought spinning throughout my head that said “well that was….something I watched, but how the heck did that even get made let alone receive the critical applause that it did?”. Yet life, as we all know, can be quite the funny thing and life decided that it wanted me to give this slice of cinema another chance with the extra clause thrown in for good measure that it would not stop bothering me until I chose to do so. As a result, I recently decided to get rid of this annoyance and sat down to watch the film again. This time however not only did I realize after finishing it that I was wrong in my initial assessment of this slice of cinema, but I also was able to see the light so to speak and see just what a majority of the film reviewing community had been talking about when they first saw this movie. Indeed the themes on display are brilliantly conveyed, the script is skillfully penned, the performances are all terrific to say nothing of wonderfully realistic, and the helmsmanship is solid and steady throughout. Yes there are a few flaws with this film, but by and large A History of Violence is an electrifying film not only it what it’s trying to convey, but in how it is able to stay with you long after the credits have begun to roll….

The plot is as follows: An adaptation of a 90s graphic novel of the same name, A History of Violence gets underway by introducing us to a seemingly mild-mannered man by the name of Tom Stall. Tom, we quickly learn, is a man who has a loving wife and kids, and is someone whose diner is a fixture of the small little Indiana town that he and his family have chosen to call home. Put another way dear reader: this is a man who, for all intents and purposes, has what could be seen by quite a many individual as having the definitive stereotypical American lifestyle and the truth is that he wouldn’t have it any other way. It isn’t long though before we see our intrepid hero is given another title to his list. That of course would be “local celebrity”. A title he manages to achieve incidentally through his heroic and unusually skilled thwarting of a pair of criminals who came to town and who tried to hold up his diner and the people in it. Yet as we see Mr. Stall humbly try to brush off the claims by his neighbors that he is a hero and just wants to move on from the incident as quickly as possible, it isn’t long before things go from bad to worse. Something that can be attributed to the arrival of yet another stranger from out of town. Unlike the others, this disfigured stranger by the name of Carl Fogarty is not here to commit yet another diner robbery. Instead, he is completely and utterly convinced that Tom is not who he says he is. Rather, he believes that Tom is actually a vicious and infamous gangster from Philadelphia by the name of Joey Cusack who went off the radar awhile back and whom he has a particularly violent history with. Yet even though Tom’s family, with particular regard to his wife Edie and son Jack have his back and believe in him wholeheartedly, it isn’t long before even they start to wonder if maybe there isn’t something to what this mystery man is saying. Thus as Fogarty’s machinations start to escalate, the question of just who our hero and whether or not this is really a case of mistaken identity or not really starts to heat up. As to where it goes from there that I will leave for you to discover for yourself dear reader….

Now I know that there are quite a few people who may see this slice of cinema and who will very well write it up as a tedious and overrated yawner of a film. In all fairness, I can completely understand this argument since I was someone at one time who thought that very same thing. At the same time however, I must also confess that if you, the viewer actually takes the time to give this slice of cinema a significantly closer analysis of both the truthful interactions between the very realistic cast of characters as well as the fact that there are some fairly surprising wrinkles to be found in this slice of cinema’s narrative ultimately reveal this slice of cinema to be something entirely distinct and novel in the world of movie magic. In other words: do not for one single second assume that this slice of cinema’s cast of characters are one-dimensional, that the fairly complex narrative is simplistic by any stretch, and that this slice of cinema is a run of the mill entry in its respective genre. Along with that, it should also be said that those who are immensely devoted to the filmography of this film’s helmer might find themselves pleasantly surprised by this slice of cinema due to how it, in many respects, doesn’t really feel like a slice of cinema he would choose to take the time to make. This is because, rather than focusing on a very weird, kooky, and especially potentially deadly biological phenomenon wrecking some serious havoc on the world around us, Cronenberg instead hurtles at the viewer a trinity of conceptual antagonists in this which take the shapes of erroneous identity, undesired vulnerability, and the idea that eventually our actions do have consequences even if it takes a while for them to come to fruition. We also see that, besides his top-flight screenwriter by the name of Josh Olson, film helmer Cronenberg also seems to be contemplating with this slice of cinema the chances that one could maintain who they are in a world where secrets are quickly becoming a luxury that fewer and fewer people are able to afford. Indeed as our main character goes through this waking nightmare, we as movie goers are left in a continual state of wondering if he is either a guy who is being falsely attacked or if maybe just maybe he is the man Fogarty says he is and then in that case he has some serious esplaining to do. Yet even when the film finally figures out which path in that fork it wishes to go down, we see he is still left to make his way through the rubble which his choices have created. Indeed he may try to keep chaos and violence from making a mark on nearly every avenue in his life. Yet as hard as he tries, we see the film decides to throw some serious curveballs in our hero’s life with his son lashing out, his marriage starting to fall apart a bit, and people in the community left to wonder if they should see him as a hero due to all the pain and tragedy his “heroic action” has inadvertently caused. Heck even his moments with his wife find themselves falling prey to the rage that he has done his best to contain, but which is still right underneath the surface. Suffice it to say this cinematic voyage into life in small town USA turned horrifically upside down is also just as much if not more a riveting analysis on just how easy it can be for violence to infiltrate and simultaneously poison nearly every single aspect of who we are as people and how we live our day to day lives. A concept that in the hands of Cronenberg and his immensely talented crew manages to become quite the terrifying reality.

It is with all of that in mind that we see that in front of the camera, this slice of cinema is able to give audiences a quartet of performances from the immensely talented Viggo Mortensen, Ed Harris, Maria Bello, and William Hurt respectively. Indeed this quarter of powerhouse talent all manage to give truly electric performances that also do a terrific job at showcasing the nuances in this slice of cinema’s narrative. This starts with Viggo Mortensen in the role of Tom and honestly I wish he would do more acting work than what he has because he is one actor who has always impressed me whenever he appears in anything. Indeed every casual glance he gives and every twitch that appears on his mouth is done to say nothing of every single movement he makes are not only done with specific goals in mind, but also are wonderfully utilized to take what is written about this character on the page and, with how powerful the work done by Mortensen is, helps immensely into making this character into a fully-fleshed out three dimensional human being. By the same token, it should also be said that I loved the work in this by Ed Harris who has always been a true delight whenever he shows up in something and here takes great delight in not only being chillingly passive-aggressive, but also does a wonderful job at making Mortensen’s life a living nightmare often through something as small as a glance or a smirk on his face. Indeed it might not be the biggest part in this film, but Harris nevertheless proves to be a truly wonderful antagonist. We also get wonderful work from Maria Bello in the role of Tom’s devoted and loving wife Edie. Indeed Bello does a wonderful job at giving us a character who is a brilliant mix of both confidence and yet also quite vulnerable, but then is also able to take on a wide variety of reactions as things are revealed and chaos erupts all around her and her family. Suffice it to say that not only is her character the most riveting, but also the most sympathetic as well and Bello does a wonderful job of making every minute of screen time she gets count. This then brings us to the work done by William Hurt and, without going into spoilers, I feel you should know that it takes a little while for him to pop up on screen. With that being said however, the moment Hurt appears on screen he makes the absolute most of it and in the process gives us a character who is chilling, magnetic, and yet also oddly affable with Mortensen at moments. Suffice it to say therefore that this slice of cinema’s performances in front of the camera do an equally as wonderful job as the work behind it at making this slice of cinema operate to the best of its collective ability.

All in all it is no secret that throughout his career film helmer David Cronenberg has chosen to try and immerse us, through a variety of different situations, in the darkest avenues of what constitutes as human nature be it scientific hubris gone horrifically awry in The Fly or our fascination with perverse material in the media taken to the extreme courtesy of Videodrome to name but a couple. Yet what distinguishes the slice of cinema that is A History of Violence as wonderful as it proves to be even when placed alongside the rest of Cronenberg’s filmography is the manner in which he capably tears to shreds certain hypocrisies that exist in the world around us without making it condescending or eyerollingly melodramatic. That and with Cronenberg’s intricate yet also brilliant manner for unfurling this narrative slowly but surely rather than all at once or at a lightning fast rate of speed we see that when things come to light the film brilliantly lets the reactions to what is learned or not learned about the main character of Tom let alone the amount of empathy shown for our main character be entirely up to each and every viewer to form for themselves. Suffice it to say that it is a truly rare thing for a mainstream slice of cinema to be this open-ended, but it is when you also factor in phenomenal work done behind the camera especially by film helmer David Cronenberg who is in top form here and a cast of terrific actors all operating at the very peak of their abilities that you see this slice of cinema achieve its intended level of greatness. No this slice of cinema is not going to be for everyone, but if anything I’ve just talked about sounds appealing to you then definitely give this slice of cinema a try and then come on back. I am sure we will have much to discuss. On a scale of 1-5 I give A History of Violence “05” a solid 4 out of 5.