By turns tender and tragic, funny and frightening, David Cronenberg's masterful new thriller "A History of Violence" has emerged on the short list of 2005's most outstanding releases. A meditation on individual identity and family life, "Violence" is possibly the most mainstream film that Cronenberg, whose credits include the grotesque "Dead Ringers" and "The Fly," has ever made. Boasting superb performances, striking camerawork and compellingly rendered themes, "A History of Violence" is a must-see drama.
In the small, idyllic community of Millbrook, Ind., Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen, "The Lord of the Rings") leads an unassuming life as the operator of a local diner. He's married to Edie, a lawyer (Maria Bello, "Assault on Precinct 13"), and has two children, teenage Jack (Ashton Holmes, "One Life to Live"), who is bullied at school, and young Sarah (Heidi Hayes), who fears monsters in her closet. Indeed, there is nothing remarkable about Tom Stall, or his family, or Millbrook. But Cronenberg has something sinister in store for these characters, as he cuts away to a pair of fugitives bouncing among small towns, leaving considerable carnage in their wake.
When the men arrive in Millbrook, they stop at Tom's diner after closing and demand coffee and pie. Though Tom eventually obliges, they quickly brandish guns, intent on robbing the restaurant and raping one of its patrons. Tom, however, quickly overpowers and brutally kills both intruders, and is soon hailed in the national news as a small-town hero. The media coverage brings the Stall family unwelcome but somewhat flattering attention, until a mysterious man named Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris) appears. According to Fogarty, Tom Stall is (or bears an uncanny resemblance to) Joey Cusack, a former player in Philadelphia's organized crime circuit with whom Fogarty has a decades-old score to settle.
Where "A History of Violence" ventures from here is best left a mystery, as the path it follows is too unpredictable and intriguing to spoil. As the title and poster may suggest, the film is considerably violent, and the camera often lingers uncomfortably over the aftereffects of brutality. But it would be remiss to call any of the film's graphic moments and images gratuitous. The degree of the violence actually plays a major thematic role, as the extremes to which the characters venture (revealed in the grisliness of their actions) drive their reactions to each other, and is ultimately a major facet of the story's central conflict.
"A History of Violence" sports not one but five of the year's most stunning performances. Mortensen, whose previous films have been largely action-driven, delivers the best performance of his career in "Violence," as an enigmatic everyman piloted by forces he cannot control. As his loving, confused wife, Bello is magnificent in an emotional performance that evolves radically throughout the picture. They share the most genuine on-screen chemistry of any pair of actors this year.
In three demanding supporting roles, veterans Harris and William Hurt (who shines in an extended scene late in the film) display typically exceptional work in their villainous parts, and newcomer Holmes is remarkable as the Stalls' high-schooler son, who struggles with his own issues of identity. Particularly noteworthy about the acting is that many critical scenes transpire with no dialogue at all. The film's concluding moments, an ocean of lost innocence and suppressed emotion, contain no dialogue; the actors communicate everything with their facial expressions, eyes and body language. It is simply breathtaking.
Though "A History of Violence" has been loosely adapted from a graphic novel of the same name, Cronenberg has crafted a work all his own, showcasing his signature extended shots and foreboding camera angles. He's probably the last director one would expect to take on a family relationship drama, but he has done so brilliantly. His movie is more than a character study, more than a crime drama. It is a portrait of the inescapability of the past and an argument that identity is more fluid than fixed. From start to finish, top to bottom, "A History of Violence" is an unforgettable, hellish masterpiece.
Saw this movie last weekend. I completely agree. Viggo was amazing. I do love him so.
- Lori G