Friday, September 23, 2005

A History of Violence

A History of Violence is a story about two men. One, Tom Stall, runs a diner in Millbrook, Indiana and lives nearby with his devoted wife and two children. The other, Joey Cusack, is a brutal Philadelphia assassin, who disappeared several years ago after attacking a powerful mobster and killing several of his henchmen.

Are Tom and Joey the same man? Fogerty, the mobster (brilliantly played by Ed Harris) thinks so. He sees Tom on a news report, after Tom has killed two violent criminals in the middle of a stick-up attempt at his restaurant, and is 100% certain the man he has seen is his old nemesis, Joey. Tom (Viggo Mortenson) on the other hand insists that he has been Tom Stall all his life, that he grew up in Portland and has moved to Indiana to raise a family, and has never even been to Philadelphia.

One man is telling the truth and the other is lying, and director David Cronenberg leaves it to the audience for most of the running time to decide which is which. (I wouldn't dream of revealing the answers in this review, though this movie isn't really about any "twists" or surprise conclusions.)

By doing so, he takes material that could have been either a stock bloody crime film or a psychological thriller or even a Mike Leigh-esque family drama and turns it into something more unnerving and unexpected. A History of Violence is an abnormally realistic horror film, a movie about terrifying secrets that must be revealed, and others that must remain buried. It's easily one of the best films I've seen all year.

Joey Cusack of Philadelphia, we gather, was not a nice man. He was a murderer and a villain, a man who could not be trusted by anyone, even those close to him. Tom Stall, on the other hand, is the complete opposite - a peaceful father of two who only wants to protect his children, love his wife and operate a small business. It is even be possible that a man like Joey could invent a man like Tom? And if he did, would that mean anything?

I was speaking to a film critic at the video store the other day about the movie (which I had not yet seen), and he told me that it was nothing like a typical David Cronenberg movie except for a few sporadic moments of gory violence. He seemed like a nice guy and all, but he was totally wrong. Cronenberg may be adapting a graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke, but he has made the material his own.

Like all Cronenberg films, the subject is what has been called "body horror." Rather than confront monsters or ghosts or other such supernatural foes, characters in Cronenberg films face off against internal antagonists whose identity is intermingled with their own. The horror comes from the realization that their enemy is them, and to kill off their nemesis would be to kill themselves. (This, in fact, is exactly what happens at the end of some Cronenberg films).

In Existenz, video game designer Allegra Gellar (Jennifer Jason Leigh) becomes trapped inside her own video game, and can't tell where her consciousness ends and the external mechanism of the game begins. In The Fly, Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) alters his own DNA, and begins to transform slowly into a monster. In Videodrome, Max Renn (James Woods) watches a video tape that messes with his brain chemsitry, producing horrifying hallucinations. In The Dead Zone, Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) emerges from a coma to find that he has strange, unpredictable psychic powers. In Scanners, Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack) has lived a miserable life of confusion and solitude because of his extraordinary ESP.

And now, in History of Violence, Tom Stall is confronted by the one force he can't possibly fight - his own past. What's past is complete, and can't be changed to suit one's present needs, so Tom is completely ineffectual to change his circumstances. It's a no-win situation...If he really is Tom Stall, with no connection to Joey Cusack, how can he possibly prove it to Fogerty? Or even to his wife? If marrying someone and raising a family with them doesn't prove you are who you say you are, what else possibly could?

But if he is Joey, or was Joey, or has any connection to Joey, how can he cover up the truth forever? Because even if Joey was the kind of guy who change his identity and lie to everyone he knows, Tom Stall isn't and seemingly wouldn't know where to begin.

These are exactly the sort of heady issues confronted by all Cronenberg movies. But, as with all his best work, the film itself doesn't feel academic or abstract. It's an extremely entertaining and very immediate thriller that's as gripping and engrossing as any film I've seen this year. As I said, History of Violence is not a movie littered with "scares," but it's full of sequences of power, resonance and startling intensity.

Tom is forced to commit all manner of violent acts through the course of the film. But the operative word in that sentence is "forced." Though he is clearly a violent man, or a man capable of great violence, he does not have a foul temper, or even seem inclined to rage or destruction. He's simply someone that, when pressed, responds in a primal and aggressive manner. As a society, we have apparently agreed that violence, even excessive and gruesome violence, committed in the name of protecting one's own family is acceptable. Even heroic.

So this is the dilemma facing Tom Stall. He does what he must to protect himself and his family. Does it matter whether or not he's good at it? Whether or not he's done it before? Or even whether or not he enjoys it?


pajamo said...

Great review! Can't wait to see it again.

gohlke said...

Dude, gotta say I didn't like History of Violence. It seemed so formulaic and unsurprising, I felt like I was watching an instructional video on how to make characters and create tension. There was no depth to any character and I just didn't give a shit about the action happening to them. I mean, that high school bully with '80s-era Swayze locks was one of the most ridiculously cliche characters I've seen since Karate Kid. And he didn't even have memorable lines like Johnny. I really like the idea of the story, but every detail was brushed over and left behind without any resolution. Now, some hip SF moviegoer was irate at the end when some people expressed disappointment, and yelled at them, "You just don't get it!" So maybe I just don't get it. So what is it I don't get?

Lons said...

It's really not a matter of "getting it," more just getting into the rhythms of the storytelling. I think the idea is more to explore some of the issues relating to social violence, and the various causes that lead human beings to violent behavior, than to make any sort of deep character study or strong philosophical statement.

I agree that the bully character is the film's weakest link; he's basically a stock character. But the scene where Tom's son encounters the bully in the hallway at school is fairly masterfully presented, surprisingly brutal and really well shot by Cronenberg.

Anonymous said...

i loved the staircase scene. when his wife pushed him away and called him joey, not tom.