(Above: Maria Bello as Edie Stall in A History of Violence)
An Oscar-worthy picture, both psychological thriller and intense family drama
Director/Writer: David Cronenberg
Cinematography: Peter Suschitzky
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, William Hurt, Ed Harris
Studio info: New Line Cinema, 96 minutes
An uncompromising, emotionally compelling tale, Cronenberg’s History is an intense anatomy of violence as it tears apart a typical American family. With the structure of a classic Western and the narrative of a morality play about human nature’s duality, the film—based on Josh Olson’s spare screenplay, loosely adapted from John Wagner and Vince Locke’s graphic novel—is tautly directed and meticulously crafted. It’s Cronenberg’s most accessible film in years, one that should earn him an Oscar nod.
Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) lives a quiet life with his lawyer wife Edie (Maria Bello) and their two children in Millbrook, Ind. But their idyllic existence is shattered when Tom foils an attempted robbery in his diner. Sensing danger, in self-defense he kills two criminals, an act of courage that stuns his family and co-workers. Tom is heralded as a hero by the national media, and his life changes overnight. Uncomfortable with his newfound celebrity, he tries to return to normalcy only to be confronted by a mysterious man (Ed Harris), who accuses Tom of wronging him in the past. As Tom and his family fight this case of mistaken identity, they’re forced to confront their new identities and changing relationships.
History of Violence pays homage to three great masters: Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang and Sam Peckinpah. The scenario—a man struggles to prove his innocence to his family and the law— is reminiscent of many Hitchcock films, specifically The Wrong Man with Henry Fonda. Cronenberg also addresses the Hitchcockian motif of middle-class complacency in the face of chaos. Like Hitchcock, he throws a quiet family off balance, placing its members in extreme situations, then testing their reactions to violence. Lang, particularly in his noir crime films, deals with the inevitable effects of past on present. His characters try but ultimately fail to escape fate, and when pushed to the limit, they often engage in extreme behavior. History also echoes Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, which injects violence into the life of a peaceful scientist (Dustin Hoffman) who’s forced to rely on his primal instincts when attacked by hoodlums.
If History of Violence’s surface text seems familiar and its plot simple, the subtexts are anything but; there are complex, disturbing undercurrents. Not known for family dramas, Cronenberg nonetheless transforms his personal vision into a more conventional story. The script is more linear and straightforward than in his other films.
Combining the handsome looks and charismatic presence of a leading man with the style of a character actor, Mortensen is perfectly cast as a classic American hero, a man of action but few words. And Bello is a revelation, projecting a raw, vulnerable sexuality. Edie begins as a lawyer who embraces small-town comforts but gradually undergoes profound changes. During the crisis, she assumes the role of “the man in the family,” with the expected masculine energy, but as the situation changes, she’s relegated back to a more feminine place. Edie’s strong sexual presence is one of the story’s key elements, particularly after Tom’s act of violence. Cronenberg masterfully contrasts two sex scenes, one lyrical, the other violent, set before and after Tom’s moral crisis.
The film’s violence is realistic and brutal; the antithesis of the choreographed, slow-motion, special-effects violence in Hollywood action flicks. While depicting violence graphically, Cronenberg refrains from lingering on or glamorizing it. And he’s also a master at creating suspense, and depicting shocking, abrupt physical action. He taps into primal emotions, his film suggesting that—under certain circumstances—all humans have the capacity for violence.