Viggo Mortensen as Tom Stall
Maria Bello as Edie Stall
William Hurt as Richie Cusack
Ed Harris as Carl Fogaty
Ashton Holmes as Jack Stall
Heidi Hayes as Sarah Stall
Stephen McHattie as Leland Jones
Greg Bryk as Billy Orser
Peter MacNeill as Sheriff Sam Carney
Steve Arbuckle as Jared
Cronenberg’s most mainstream and competent work to date isn’t perfect, but it’s extremely effective in showing how a small town is affected when violence rears its ugly head.
The quiet family life of Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) is disrupted when he stops a burglary at a diner, and the national media attention brings undesirables to town claiming that he is someone else entirely.
Director David Cronenberg has always been a bit of an anomaly, not only because he was doing intelligent horror at a time when it wasn’t in fashion, but also because he made the shift to artier drama in recent years without making an obvious attempt to make films in order to win over the critics. His latest film A History of Violence is his most mainstream work as well as a rare studio work-for-hire picture. Loosely based on the 1997 graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke, Cronenberg uses that plot of a man’s dark past to explore a few of his own ideas about violence, both criminal and domestic. It’s hard to determine whether the film is more enjoyable knowing the original source material, because it diverges far enough away from the book to be an entirely different experience.
The film opens in an unassuming way as two criminals on the run leave a motel, setting a slow and very deliberate tone for the rest of the film, especially in the way they “check out.” From there, we’re brought into the household of Tom Stall, a regular small town guy very much in love with his beautiful wife, played by Maria Bello. His son Jack is being bullied in high school but tries hard to take the pacifist route. For the most part, everything is good in their lives until the criminals we met earlier try to rob Tom’s diner, and he’s forced to defend his coworkers. The way that he defends his turf receives national news coverage, getting the attention of one Mr. Fogarty, played by Ed Harris, who comes to town claiming that Tom is actually one Joey Cusack from Philly. Tom is such a nice guy that you can’t imagine him having anything to do with this gangster, but the more Fogarty hangs around, the more those around Tom start questioning whether maybe he’s telling the truth.
Although the film is mostly driven by a number of talking heads scenes, things often pick up when Cronenberg is able to utilize the sex and gore for which he’s best known, and he takes full advantage of his R-rating. Those who get squeamish at the sight of blood probably will probably want to stay away, since Cronenberg takes a mirthful delight in showing the effects of the film’s violence, although the actual acts tend to take on a more comedic quality, almost like a ballet. Overall, this is a nice departure from Cronenberg’s normal dark style, because it allows him to be more playful, but never getting so weird that “normal people” can’t appreciate what he’s trying to do. He still likes to keep the humor rather subtle and implied, but he also includes a number of overt laughs, some more intentional than others.
With the benefits of a studio budget, Cronenberg is also able to bring on board some fine dramatic actors, including Ed Harris, Maria Bello and William Hurt, all three whom are often underrated. Viggo Mortensen himself isn’t bad as Tom Stall, although neither of the two very distinct personalities he has to portray seems very far removed from the normal nice guy character he’s been playing as of late. This allows Cronenberg an opportunity to expand upon Maria Bello’s role as his wife, making her far more important to the story than she was in the graphic novel. Bello takes some of the biggest risks with the film, showing off her sexuality as well as an impressive ability to cry and vomit on cue.
As amusing as Ed Harris is as the gangster Fogarty, he’s trumped at the end of the movie by an over-the-top performance from William Hurt, playing against type in a role that would have made Christopher Walken quite proud. He brings much of the comedy to the film’s climax, although it ends up softening the violence of the scene.
Thanks to these strong performers, the film’s most powerful scenes stay with you, and it’s often hard watching this nice family fall apart, the high points often involving Bello and Mortensen or Harris. There are a few weaker scenes that don’t work, mostly due to the film’s two younger actors playing Mortensen and Bello’s kids. They aren’t strong enough as actors to deliver in the stronger dramatic scenes, particularly Ashton Holmes as Tom’s moping son. His story arc isn’t nearly as interesting, and it tends to make the film a bit unfocused. |
Other than that, there’s little question that this is Cronenberg’s most competent effort as a director, if only because of his great choices in collaborators. The luscious score by Howard Shore helps build the tension and creates a purveying tone of menace throughout the film, while the cinematography is top notch, always finding unique ways of showing a scene than one might normally see.
The Bottom Line:
If you’re interested in a strong and thoroughly involving crime-drama about family and gangsters, this acts as a great introduction to Cronenberg’s directing style. Of course, if you just want to see some cool sex and violence, you won’t be disappointed either.
A History of Violence opens in select cities on Friday and nationwide on September 30.