Appropriately enough, “A History of Violence,” hits like a loud, open-palmed slap on the face: this is a near-perfect film that somehow manages to be confounding, hilarious, shocking, infuriating, and enormously moving – usually all at the same time. Yes, it’s audacious. It’s lurid and manipulative and gory and chilly and at times seems so wildly uneven that you wonder if any two people on set had been given the same shooting script. But God bless him, David Cronenberg has accomplished what may be his masterwork by squeezing all of his keen, absolutely unique observations about the human condition into an utterly non-Cronenbergian film. And with his trademark (and, some might argue, self-conscious) creepiness curbed, he has turned in one of the most jaw-droppingly humane gorefests ever made.
Viggo Mortenson plays Tom Stall, a simple, small-town man whose perfect, loving family and idyllic upper-middle-class existence are nothing short of the (Canadian) American dream. His kids and wife (Maria Bello) genuinely love him, he works hard at his business (he owns a diner) and seems to be respected in the community. Tom gives off a quiet integrity that most men could practice for years and still never perfect: he is balanced, intelligent, and tempered like a Buddhist monk. But when two “bad men” wheel into town (after murdering several people – including a young girl – in the opening scene) and attempt to rob Tom’s diner, everything changes in a matter of seconds. One moment these two thugs have taken Tom and his fellow citizens hostage, and the next both lie dead on the floor thanks to Tom’s quick thinking and alarming agility with a firearm and a pot of hot coffee. Tom becomes a hero, but the cycle of violence that has been set into motion by his heroic act will spin in ever-widening circles, threatening to rip Tom, his family, and his community to shreds.
Things begin to deteriorate a few days after the incident, following two tracks – one Tom’s, and one involving his son, Jack (Ashton Holmes). While Tom is visited at his diner by a group of men who claim to know him as Joey Cusack from Philadelphia – supposedly some sort of cold-blooded contract killer – his sensitive son’s continued problems with an aggressive bully have been complicated by Jack’s father’s heroism. Although Tom’s quick response may have solved the problem in the diner, his aggression is creating more questions than answers for those around him. Is violence an acceptable answer, after all? If so, where is the line between self-defense and sadism? And how is it that one violent man can be a monster, when another is a savior? As the threat of continued, compounded violence continues to rise (both within the Stall household and without), these questions become percussive, impossible to ignore. Our response to the sight of a man with his face shot off is being tested and used against us. Our reaction to an act of defiance against a bully is held up for discussion – is it too far? Is violent action ever to be celebrated? If not, is the heroism that accompanies it counterfeit? Hollow?
The most awe-inspiring thing about “A History of Violence” is that it is able to present this discussion within the context of a generic system where such things are never questioned. Wrapped into the familiar form of a violent crime thriller – a genre that celebrates bloodshed, particularly at the hands of pacifists who “step up to the plate” in order to defend themselves and their families, Cronenberg’s calm observations are doubly effective. Much like Michael Haneke’s brutal “Funny Games” (which similarly used the thriller structure to challenge the audience’s ability to enjoy the fruits of their own murderous appetites), “Violence” addresses the issues from within the system. Sure, he could have made a cold, calculated drama about violence that examined the subject from a purely academic vantage point – but he would have ignored the inescapable primal pull that violence has – the fascination that draws our eyes out the window at a traffic accident or bumps our adrenaline when a barfight breaks out behind us. In Cronenberg’s tale (which I’m avoiding discussing too directly, as part of the fundamental suspense of the film is what exactly these strange “bad men” want with Tom, and what mysteries his past might hold), violence is an inescapable fact, yes – but it’s a force that can and must be controlled. All kinds of people commit horribly aggressive acts in this film; the difference between the “good” ones and the “bad” ones is the ability to understand the consequences of those actions and move on.
When I noted that this is an “un-Cronenberg” Cronenberg film, it wasn’t meant as an absolute. True, his former obsession of “body terror” (seen in “Rabid”, “The Brood”, “Dead Ringers”, “The Fly”, “Videodrome”, and just about everything else he’s ever made) has been shifted to the back burner in favor of the more potent – and timely – topics of culpability, regret, and community responsibility. The question of how to stop a cycle of violence is a tough one to tackle, and it is both refreshing and immensely rewarding to see Cronenberg take on the subject on all cylinders, dispensing with much of the fetishistic imagery and kooky theatrics that peppered his more avante-garde work. But beyond this, Cronenberg’s touch is very plainly visible in everything from the static framing to the eerie calm and awkward silences. His sense of humor is also as pitch-dark as ever, bringing unexpected levity to otherwise harrowing scenes and twisting your expectations into pretzels. I spent most of the film holding my breath, unsure of what to expect, and at nearly every turn I was surprised and further intrigued by the progression of the plot and the characters, whom I uniformly loved by the end of the film: they are fierce, deeply flawed, and beautifully, terribly human.
Few films dare you to pretend that you’re not learning something while you’re enjoying the suspense, the gunplay and the blood. In the case of “History”, it’s a lesson worth learning – go see it.