A History of Violence (2005)

My father’s review:
“Weird little movie…”

That said, here’s how mine starts: Every review I read before I saw this movie tried really hard to skirt around a central part of it plotwise, and in so doing basically ruined said plot point. So, if you haven’t seen this, consider my review this: “It’s good. See it.” Don’t read anything else, just watch the movie.

Now, if you’re going to ignore me, or if you’ve already seen it and you’re looking for a viewpoint on it, then here we go.

I first saw this in a theatre with a bunch of immature and irritating fools which are the reason I am more and more reluctant to go to movie theatres. Apparently they had never seen openly sexual sex scenes or graphic violence before and tittered every time either came on screen as if they were all thirteen year olds (not to insult thirteen year olds, of course). Hopefully they were, as that would at least provide SOME justification.

Beyond that I recall something feeling very weird about the film overall when I first saw it, perhaps because I knew Cronenberg for The Fly, Videodrome, Naked Lunch–the “gooey Cronenberg,” as I call him. When I reviewed Spider, I noted that it was the line between those films and this one, finally bridging the gap for me between those highly metaphoric and image-intense films, often sopping and dripping with those effects (which I felt were ‘refined’ by eXistenZ, there seeming just as messy but somehow more deliberate and controlled) and this one, which, while deeper than most other films that wander around (which I don’t mean as insulting; if I’m at all a snob, it isn’t that kind, at least not consistently) it is definitely straightforward, plotwise and actionwise. Things happen in order and everything that does happen, happens in the movie’s world, period.

Do not wander into this movie thinking of the Cronenberg I was, just look at it as a film.

The film is, overall, an exploration of violence and its effects, nature, history and existence in and on humans. Viggo Mortensen is Tom Stall, a smalltown café/diner owner and operator, married to wife Edie (Maria Bello) with kids Jack (Ashton Holmes) and Sarah (Heidi Hayes). After a late night robbery attempt, Stall finds himself at the center of a small media circus surrounding his “heroic” actions in putting the attempted robbers out of commission. This brings him to the attention of mobster Richie Cusack (William Hurt, in an unusually sadistic and violent role) and Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris, also unusually violent and amoral).

From here we have Cronenberg’s oh-so-clinical and dispassionate (but, again, not sterile) eye turned toward how the violence inherent in our “reptile brain” manifests itself in all of these different people. Stall finds it when confronted with danger, Edie finds it in animalistic carnal passion through her exposure to the animal in someone else, Jack finds it in a protective position and after being put under stress. Fogarty and Cusack revel in it, completely aware and making no attempt to deny their violent and base natures.

Cronenberg does not advocate or condemn anyone openly, not as the camera observer, not as the film itself is constructed. Certainly the characters make judgments, but the eye of the camera, the one we see through, simply observes. Things occur and we can think what we want of them. Graphic violence is shown to emphasize the truly violent nature of violent acts, as opposed to the clean and easily healed variety that often appears in film, but is shown as the result of graphic violence, not as “bad” graphic violence. When we see something of strangers Billy (Greg Bryk) and Leland (Stephen McHattie, who often appears as cold-blooded snake characters, with thin lips and a small mouth, strong cheekbones and a steely glare–a sort of more craggy Robert Patrick) and what they have done and will do, the camera casually pans over and leaves it to the audience to find horror in it.

It was still offputting to me in the same way as before; there’s a strange artificiality to everything that throws me off a bit, which isn’t helped by my difficulty in seeing Hurt–a fine performance, to be sure–as a sadistic villain. In some ways though it made more sense this time, and also knowing the intelligence and skill of Cronenberg, I knew that it couldn’t have been unnoticed or accident. First, it helps to establish for the viewer the nature and character of Tom Stall by portraying him so clearly as a stand-up good guy. It also represents the artificiality of an existence that attempts to deny violence. Stall tells his son that “this family does not solve problems by hitting people”–ironically then hitting his own son.

In spite of that unease I feel with it, I like the film quite a lot, and don’t see any reason to downgrade it for that, because it doesn’t end up interfering with my overall enjoyment. It’s a curiosity to be certain–perhaps my father’s review WAS accurate…


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