Dir. David Cronenberg
I thought up a great drinking game tonight. You get together a couple of friends and a bottle of whatever you can steal from your parents without getting caught, pop in A History of Violence and take a shot every time Viggo Mortensen kills someone. Chances are you'll get good and drunk and have a great time doing it since, if I recall correctly, thats about 8 shots in an hour and a half. Thats essentially what A History of Violence is: condensing 40 years of film making on the part of director David Cronenberg into one near perfect piece of sickeningly excellent cinema.
A History of Violence takes a simple, systematic approach. Cronenberg is an experience filmmaker who has no need to try to impress his audience. He has the audacity to show anything (remember the diner scene? Remember what that guy's face look like after Viggo blew it in half?) but the good taste to know when to do so . His cinematography is inventive and in tune with the relative surrealism of the plot. He eschews plain, contemporary filming techniques for one's that better suit his needs. The camera floats when it could simply pan. The earlier reference to surrealism is not to say that at any point A History of Violence is unbelievable, in fact it is just the opposite. The scenario is real, tangible and terrifying. What is surreal about it is how we're never given much in the way of details, just broad strokes. Like similarly alarming Blue Velvet the horror of the narrative suspends the need for information. There is no extravagance in this film; it contains only what it needs to. Unlike the dozens of action/suspense movies that clog movie theaters each year, this one is concise and focused.
The film is equal parts suspense, horror, action and sex; also known as everything an American audience really wants to see. What differentiates A History of Violence from say Die Hard is how, despite having the word “violence” in the title, most of the movie is a build up to the excruciating act. Its like Hitchcock if Hitchcock had had nine millimeters. Rather than an orgy of guns and blood Cronenberg painstakingly extracts the humanity of his characters. He drives home our own repressed primitive desires to kick the shit out of people who make us angry or to murder those who threaten us. Main character Tom Stall (played by Viggo) embodies the modern characteristic of repression of primitive behavior. Here is a man who has come from “a history of violence” into a new life where he is simple and plain-spoken, adored by his fellow townspeople and is, in the words of Sheriff Sam Carney, “good people”. His alternate persona, “Joey”, a Philadelphian gangster with inclinations towards viciousness is intermittently referred to as a “monster” or an “animal” by his wife, Edie (Maria Bello) after Tom reluctantly reveals this former self to her. Tom knows that he cannot return to his former life of being Joey. He must make a decision in regards to how to move forward. In the end, he chooses not to destroy the violence but the history.
Violence is not a social trend. Violence is not something we're born with or born without. Violence is a habit that is acquired and nurtured by some and rejected by the rest (who still maintain a distinct curiosity about it). At the end of A History of Violence Tom returns home and rejoins his family who, despite being skeptical and visibly upset, accept him. Where other films may have dragged on after that scene in a vain effort to explain themselves, Cronenberg simply ends. I'm sure when a person sees a film rated 10.0 they're waiting for that moment when the critic (in this case a very amateur, but ambitious critic) says “this film was perfect because...”. However, the problem is that recent cinema is often inexplicably great. We don't have the luxury of retrospect to say that David Cronenberg's A History of Violence will influence this, that and those directors/actors/writers. While Cronenberg is certainly cemented as a skilled director, only time will tell how good he really is. This is true of the entire film industry and of all art in general. So, drawing up a quick summary about why this film is a magnificent, transient piece of cinema is necessarily near-impossible. But here we go: A History of Violence surprises and shocks, but also contains a deep psychological foundation. Viggo Mortensen's performance is certainly one of his finest. The simplicity of its dialog and structure is only outdone by the universality of its message. It requires multiple watchings. Its got boobs in it! Are you happy now? Seriously, if you like action cinema but desire something more than sheer spectacle, A History of Violence is your ticket to the convoluted psyche of violence in America.