Directed by: David Cronenberg || Produced by: Chris Bender, J.C. Spink
Screenplay by: Josh Olson, David Cronenberg || Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, Ed Harris, William Hurt, Ashton Holmes, Peter MacNeill, Stephen McHattie, Greg Bryk
Music by: Howard Shore || Cinematography by: Peter Suschitzky || Edited by: Ronald Sanders || Country: United States, Germany, Canada || Language: English
Running Time: 96 minutes
After the cultural phenomenon that was The Lord of the Rings trilogy (LOTR; 2001-2003), both its stars and its collaborative all-star team of auteurs were changed forever. Peter Jackson became a household name and Ian McKellen, at the ripe old ages of 62-64, established his most famous and endearing character. The films’ other notable lead, Viggo Mortensen, had been a prolific actor long before the now legendary trilogy, but at the ages of 43-45 finally broke into the mainstream with his equally endearing fatherly character of Aragorn. Since then, Mortensen has maintained a high standard for his acting career, turning down droves of crappy screenplays that poured into his lap after LOTR’s success. Aside from a couple boring movies here and there (e.g. Hildalgo , Appaloosa ), Mortensen’s highbrow demeanor and respectable tastes for cinema have kept his acting star high, though unfortunately mostly out of mainstream recognition.
His most notable post-LOTR collaborations have been with renowned Canadian writer-director David Cronenberg, the original master of “body-horror” classics like Videodrome (1983) and The Fly (1986). His new millennial work with Mortensen has seen a shift in focus from experimentally charged, surrealist science-fiction to equally gory and dour but much more relatable crime-dramas. A History of Violence (AHV) is the first of these new works in Cronenberg’s career-rebirth, and it equals if not surpasses his classic body-horror work from the 1980s.
As its title implies, AHV follows the history of violence as part of the human condition on a variety of levels. Roger Ebert noted that Cronenberg analyzes the use of violence throughout history to start conflicts and solve disputes and, more disturbingly, how violence itself is a fundamental part of the individual human experience and psyche. The film’s running thesis is that violence itself bears no sense of morality or responsibility to anyone or anything. It is only a neutral tool that is wielded by those who use it to assert power over others, acquire resources, and most of all, to survive; Cronenberg is most interested in violence as an adaptive instinct.
AHV’s story follows the life of one Tom Stall (Mortensen), a seemingly ordinary, average small-town family man who runs a diner in a quiet, middle-of-nowhere Indiana town. When a couple of marauding gangsters stumble into town and attempt to rob, rape, and presumably kill everyone in Stall’s restaurant, he must take matters into his own hands, and the consequences of those actions reveal a part of Stall’s character and his past that could only remain hidden for so long. The less you know about the latter half of the film going in, the better.
Mortensen’s Stall is a case study of the human condition, specifically the male-version of it. Cronenberg argues a strict, brutally straightforward Darwinian assessment of humanity. The revelations concerning Stall’s past point out the selective benefits of violence, including but not limited to social status, sexual attraction, and sheer survival. There’s a crucial scene about 3/4 through the film where Stall’s “history of violence” prompts a heated argument between him and his wife, played by Maria Bello, which ends in passionate, rough sex that may be the hottest “love”-scene I’ve ever watched in a movie.
The implications of this scene and similar ones throughout the film regarding Stall’s family are intriguing. His wife isn’t so much disgusted by his necessary acts of violence as she is emotionally betrayed by his years of lies and deception, while his son is more offended by his blatant hypocrisy with regards to solving conflicts through violent means than his father’s true identity. And naturally, his little daughter doesn’t care one way or another because she’s too young to understand any of it!
Perhaps I like A History of Violence so much because it shows the inherent contradiction of the modern male-experience and the way sexuality is so intertwined with the presence, threat, and execution of violent acts. Properly directed violence can draw mates, protect families, establish social status, and solve conflicts more definitely than any other means, but in this modern world of attempted law and order and never-ending denial of humanity’s obvious animal origins, it can also rip open a world of problems from which one can’t escape. Cronenberg argues through glorious tracking shots, perfect blocking, and disturbing blood and gore effects that violence is a fundamental aspect of the human condition.
It’s difficult to describe Cronenberg’s great direction of his and Josh Olson’s spectacular screenplay, but rest assured the man is as confident and determined as he was in the 1980s. Cronenberg directs this story like a crime-story masquerading as an artsy-drama, or perhaps it’s the other way around. The story feels so small in scale yet towering in its applicability and thematic assertions.
Towards the end, the film loses steam with increasingly goofy pseudo-action scenes where Mortensen’s gangster-in-small-town-dad’s-clothing turns into an unstoppable juggernaut, and William Hurt’s guest-appearance isn’t the most effective, but thankfully the narrative’s thesis never loses force. Mortensen’s Stall often pauses mid-scene as if to marvel at the never-ending absurdity and paradoxical nature of his situation. In many ways that’s how one could best sum up this film: It’s a vintage-Cronenbergian allegory of the contradictory nature of the “civilized” human animal.
In the years ahead, Mortensen would collaborate with Cronenberg two more times for additional critical and commercial praise. It goes to show how artistic integrity, high standards, and an unwillingness to sell out even after mainstream recognition can create great works of art in this day and age. Instead of using his name-brand face to push increasingly lazy, repetitive pop-culture garbage down our throat (*glares at Orlando Bloom…), Mortensen took the honorable and considerably less lucrative route to work with some of the best in the business. A History of Violence is a fucking cool movie, in no short order thanks to Mortensen’s highbrow, ultimate movie-Dad demeanor.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Cronenberg frames scenes of violence that hit close to home, using both Olsen’s screenplay and his vintage body-horror effects mastery for maximum effect. A History of Violence is one of the best arguments for cinematic violence’s ability to power thematic depth, character development, and a strong overall narrative. Mortensen is at his best here, playing a role that was molded just for him. His supporting cast, including and especially his character’s family, have great chemistry.
— However… A History Violence descends into goofy gags and weird slapstick humor in its final “action”-scenes. William Hurt is good but underused.