Thursday, October 20, 2005


Chris Wilson

A History of Violence really should be a great film. As a treatise on violence, I can see what it’s trying to do. Hopefully others will, too. But having an incredible idea and really doing something with it are two very different things.

Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) has a gorgeous wife (Maria Bello), a teenage son and a young daughter. He lives one of those idyllic small-town lives you typically see in movies. One night at the diner Tom owns, two men come in to rob the place and presumably murder everyone in it. Tom, in a quite un-idyllic manner, brutally and efficiently dispatches the two men before they can lay a hand on anyone. Tom has saved the day and becomes a nationwide hero. Fade to black.

Or at least that’s how your typical story would end. But thankfully A History of Violence isn’t your typical story. This is just the beginning. Soon after gaining national attention for his courageous act, Tom and his family are visited by several sinister characters led by Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris). Fogarty claims to know Tom, though by a different name. The tension there is amplified by outbursts from Tom’s son, who deals with Tom’s violent actions (not to mention school bullies) in increasingly unhealthy ways.

The brilliance of this story is how it hints at the place of violence in all parts of life. Violence toward someone you love; violence toward someone you loathe. One scene even poses the controversial connection of sex and violence. The violence you see is not just graphic but gritty and realistic. Comparatively, most action films are cartoons. In A History of Violence, a man shot in the head not only dies but has a large piece missing. Some may not enjoy this, which really is the point. In order to take violence seriously, one has to see both the emotional and the physical effects of it. Director David Cronenberg (infamous for his twisted horror films) knows how to disgust. He also knows how to make the audience question what to enjoy and whether or not to glorify the violence.

What’s ultimately disappointing is that film only hints at connections. It never really explores where these actions come from or what they lead to. This is especially disappointing in the subplot of the son. He’s directly involved in two brutal incidents, the question raised being whether or not violence is learned or innate. Not only is this simply abandoned, but we never see the psychological toll. The climax also leaves much to be desired. In a film about how complexly intertwined violence is in the world, this section of the film feels like an 80s action movie. With material this intelligent, the bad guys (or good guys for that matter) shouldn’t be so simple. Thankfully there’s a much more emotionally complicated epilogue.

With all this said, A History of Violence is well worth looking into if you’re tired of dumb action thrillers. It most definitely has substance (efficiently packed into 96 minutes), but judged on what it tries to be and who it should be for, the movie simply has too little to offer to be praised the way it is. As far as a history of violence is concerned, this is the Cliff notes version.