Film Reviews: Wednesday, September 28, 2005
A History of Violence
Starring Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, and Ed Harris. Directed by David Cronenberg. Written by Josh Olson, based on John Wagner and Vince Locke’s graphic novel. Rated R.
Killers Always Die

This intriguing thriller tries to leave A History of Violence in the past.


Like M. Night Shyamalan’s 2000 film Unbreakable, David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence is about a man who mysteriously can’t be killed; when he gets into violent situations, somehow the other people always die instead of him. Unlike most Hollywood action heroes who fit this description, the main characters of these movies are haunted by their continuing survival. Another similarity is that, as with all of Shyamalan’s films, it’s difficult to discuss A History of Violence without giving away too much. What I can say is that, while it’s not the masterpiece that many critics claim, it’s still fairly interesting on its own.

Viggo Mortensen plays Tom Stall, a salt-of-the-earth type who runs a diner in a small Indiana town. His wife Edie (Maria Bello) is the major breadwinner in the family, and he’s content to live quietly with her and their two children. Late one night, two men with guns walk into his diner and demand money. When they indicate their intentions to start shooting his customers, Tom leaps into action and kills the robbers. The local media proclaim him a hero, but his unsought fame comes dearly. Soon, more bad men led by a guy with a missing eyeball (Ed Harris) start stalking the Stalls, apparently believing that Tom is a notorious former Philadelphia mobster who’s been in hiding. With a knowing leer, the man tells Edie, “Why don’t you ask ‘Tom’ how he got so good at killing people?”

Adapted from an obscure graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke called A Small Town Killing, the movie asks whether violence really can solve one’s problems and whether it’s possible to lead a life of violence and then leave it behind for one as unremarkable as Tom’s. In addition to Cronenberg’s deliberate, defiantly unhip direction that gives an air of icy seriousness to the pulpy material, the film has been overpraised because it raises these issues. The movie as a whole doesn’t really shed much light on its themes, though, and the last third of the picture doesn’t seem to fit with the rest. This may be simply because William Hurt gives such a bad performance as a mob kingpin that it must have been intentional. (He is perversely entertaining, especially his comically outraged reaction when Tom slips away from three goons.)

Even so, Cronenberg’s direction is awfully skilled, and as usual he doesn’t stint on the gruesomeness, showing us one of the dead robbers with his lower jaw blasted off. The subplots resonate in ways that the main plot doesn’t — Tom’s heroics encourage his teen-age son (Ashton Holmes) to administer a savage beating to a school bully, and a turning point in the story is a truly disturbing quasi-rape scene. Mortensen’s cagey performance, his best one to date, keeps us guessing about who Tom really is. A History of Violence isn’t weighty enough to subvert the assumptions of Hollywood thrillers, but its style and dark humor make it a refreshing alternative.

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