History of Violence: Shadows of the Past



historyofviolenceDavid Cronenberg has declared himself a “complete Darwinian”, a believer in the survival of the fittest. That is obvious in this film that became a critical acknowledgment (there were even Oscar nominations) for a director who has enjoyed a long career of bloody, absurd movies appreciated by connoisseurs and a large crowd of young males. A History of Violence is more conventional, but still recognizable to Cronenberg aficionados. 

The film was based on a graphic novel, but many details have been changed. It introduces a lead character, Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen), who’s living a quiet life in a small Indiana town. He owns a diner and has a wife, Edie (Maria Bello), and two kids. He’s well liked and wouldn’t hurt a fly. That perception of him changes the day when two criminals walk into his diner and threaten to kill Tom and his staff. He attacks one of the thugs with a pot of coffee, gets hold of one of their guns and quickly executes the men. Tom is hailed as a hero by the people in the town and lands in the news spotlight. Shortly afterwards, an intimidating, disfigured man (Ed Harris) dressed in black comes to the diner and calls Tom Joey. He claims to know him, but Tom tells him that he’s made a mistake. The local sheriff finds out who the man is; he turns out to be Carl Fogarty, a dangerous enforcer who works for a Philadelphia mob boss called Richie Cusack (William Hurt). Tom tells the sheriff that he still doesn’t understand why Fogarty thinks he is this “Joey”… but the cat is already out of the bag. 

Good story, with or without the blood
Cronenberg is very interested in the way the lead character can walk in and out of his two identities; how they are not really compatible, but still exist in one body. Tom can use lethal force when he has no other choice, but his ability to kill a man with cruelty doesn’t change him as a loving father and husband. Or does it? As far as the violence goes, there are plenty of nauseating sequences; Cronenberg has often expressed surprise at the notion that he makes excessively violent films, but that’s dishonest of him. He has the ability to create revolting violence and he seems to get a kick out of it; why deny it? It’s a good story with or without the blood-spurting, surprisingly adult and intelligent, that also asks the question of when and where violence is the right solution to problems. Mortensen is excellent in a low-key performance, utterly believable both as a family man and as a killer. Other performances complement his nicely; Bello as the wife, Harris as the scarred gangster who won’t take no for an answer, and Hurt, who’s very amusing as the psychopathic mob boss. 

One could argue that when all is said and done there isn’t much in this film that is very unique. The final showdown is rather clichéd, but the film ends with a silent sequence where Tom returns to his family. No words are spoken, but what happens there and the looks that are exchanged say a lot about what this family has gone through and will go through. Without that scene, and a couple of others, there would be little depth in the portrayal of Tom Stall and his situation.

A History of Violence 2005-U.S.-Canada. 95 min. Color. Produced by Chris Bender, J.C. Spink. Directed by David Cronenberg. Screenplay: Josh Olson. Graphic Novel: John Wagner, Vince Locke. Cast: Viggo Mortensen (Tom Stall), Maria Bello (Edie Stall), William Hurt (Richie Cusack), Ed Harris, Ashton Holmes, Stephen McHattie.

Trivia: Harrison Ford was allegedly considered for the part of Tom.

Last word: “My investment was in Josh’’s script. We had developed it to a certain point that it was going in a very interesting direction and we were both very comfortable with it, and that’’s when I heard that there was a graphic novel. And I said, ‘Well, what graphic novel? And they said, ‘Oh you didn’’t know?’ So then I looked at it and I saw that although the basic premise was obviously the same, it then took some turns and went in a very different direction from what we were doing. And with Josh, I guess it was conscience to go in a different direction. But for me it wasn’’t. I was just following him and then developing it with him. So it had no effect on me, reading it.” (Cronenberg, About.com)

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