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A History of Violence
by Chris Dashiell

If violence, as the saying goes, is as American as apple pie, it's also been as common in American movie theaters as popcorn. From the western to the crime film and action blockbuster, violence has come to inhabit our cinematic dreams, but it's a rare film that doesn't take this for granted. David Cronenberg's new picture titled, appropriately enough, A History of Violence, is that rarity--a movie about violence that succeeds on the most basic level as a thriller, while at the same time calling its own genre (and our assumptions) into question.

Viggo Mortensen plays Tom Stall, a friendly, easy-going guy who owns the local diner in a small Indiana town. He's got a smart beautiful wife (Maria Bello), and two great kids, a teenage boy (Ashton Holmes) and a little girl. Into this idyllic American dream drives a couple of psychopaths in the middle of a cross-country serial killing spree. And of course they decide to stroll into Tom's diner looking for more mayhem.

Most thrillers would make this the climax of the story, with the usual one-two punch of fear and revenge fantasy followed by violent catharsis for the audience. But this movie only just begins here. Tom dispatches the two psychos, saving several lives and turning into an overnight hero with his name in the paper and his face on TV. He modestly shrugs off the publicity and goes back to his life. Then, soon after, a trio of men in black shows up at the diner, led by a scary-looking man with one eye named Fogarty, played by Ed Harris. Fogarty calls Tom "Joey," says he knew him in Philadelphia, and he's come for some sort of payback for injuries inflicted by this "Joey." No matter how much Tom protests that Fogarty is mistaking him for someone else, this nemesis won't give up.

The style couldn't be more precise--Cronenberg builds up the suspense flawlessly, and his ability to create a feeling of menace is in full evidence. It's the kind of movie in which you're clutching your seat much of the time, and the mood is complemented by Howard Shore's tense score and some terrific acting. Mortensen starts out as a sort of blank slate and then his character gradually gains varied depths and shadings. It's clearly his best work so far--there's a wonderful moment in a bar, late in the picture, when he reveals a completely different side of himself with just three words. Bello does remarkably well in a difficult role that requires her to show both repulsion and a strange attraction to the idea that her husband might be someone she doesn't know. Harris has played heavies in previous films, but here he shows a mean, ugly side that I think is new for him.

But Cronenberg, as anyone familiar with his work would expect, has deeper things on his mind than just getting the audience's hearts to race. Nothing is quite what it seems here. The film plays on the theme of duality in many ways--the images of small town virtue and contentment throw shadows of a darker myth at every turn. Tom tells his son, who is tormented by a school bully, that it's not right to settle problems with force, but this way of talking doesn't match with events--he shrouds the reality his son experiencing with a "should be" that is directly contradicted by his own story. Similarly, the graphic violence that occurs in the movie provides the audience with the adrenaline rush usually associated with action films, but then Cronenberg shows us the true, ugly consequences on the human body, and the thrill suddenly subsides into shock. He's not looking down at the audience, or even "implicating" us, as film theorists are fond of saying--he's simply letting both sides of the duality be overtly expressed, rather than denying one of them (as a more conventional filmmaker might do), and thus we experience the contradiction, the seductivenesss and tragedy of violence, as part of the story's excitement.

There's a sex scene early in the film that is played like everyone's ideal of love, innocence, and fun. A later sex scene is powerfully brutal, almost a rape, in which the old power game of dominance and resistance becomes frightening and painfully intimate. (It has to be very difficult to succeed in such as scene, without being exploitative, but Cronenberg and the actors pull it off.) Sex is the other controversial element in our popular culture, of course, and so naturally it gets drawn into the conflict.

A History of Violence was adapted by Josh Olson from a graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke. Indeed, the plot has the linear structure and slightly unreal air of a comic book, but even when William Hurt shows up as an over-the-top gangster, the film doesn't suffer from this cartoonish feel--it benefits. The more Cronenberg emphasizes the genre elements, taking us once again through the cinematic dance steps that have become so familiar from decades of screen violence, the more acutely we feel the duality, the sense of dislocation, the double binds trapping the characters in empty codes of masculinity and reaction.

A History of Violence is Cronenberg's most accessible, most commercial film since The Fly, or perhaps ever. Yet he doesn't betray the rigorous sensibility and intelligence that is his hallmark. The film works on multiple levels--as a psychological thriller, a subversive take on our attraction to violence (along with our denial of that attraction), and a dark portrait of the troubled American soul. See it, and then try to shake it.

©2005 Chris Dashiell

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