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A History Of Violence

USA 2005
Directed by
David Cronenberg
95 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Sharon Hurst
4 stars

History Of Violence, A

Synopsis: Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) is a Mr Nice Guy who runs a diner in a small mid-western town. His home life with wife Edie (Mario Bello) and their two kids is near idyllic. His life is irrevocably altered when two brutal men hold up the diner and Tom kills one of them, turning himself immediately into a local hero. His notoriety catches the attention of Philadelphia mobster Fogarty (Ed Harris), who turns up claiming Tom is not who he purports to be, but is in fact someone else who wronged him years ago. 

Don’t let yourself be put off by the title. This is a fascinating and thrilling film on every level, and its title reflects the many layers Cronenberg examines, from the violence inherent in American society, through to the notion that everyone has some level of repressed or potential violence, and whether people’s basic natures can ever change.

Cronenberg has always been a director to reckon with, from the compelling Spider about a schizophrenic man, through to the bizarre sexual perversions of Crash and the disturbing futuristic world of  eXistenZ. Here he ventures into what at first appears to be almost a mainstream story, and then with subtle and inspired direction subverts everything we think we know to be true from the film’s opening scenes. There are moments of extreme and sudden violence, with sickening glimpses of the results. The creepy thing is that while we are repulsed by the grisliness, we also want to see the bad guys “get theirs” and we secretly applaud the perpetrators. This ambivalent attitude to violence is cleverly elicited from the audience and is never far from the film’s surface. It sits almost comfortably alongside other powerful but more lauded aspects of our humanity such as love, consideration, respect and familial affection, all intrinsically interwoven into this multi-layered film.

Mortensen does his most complex work to date with the role of Tom and his transformation from a loving husband and respected citizen to a man struggling to cope with the violence that has suddenly entered his life. In all his scenes he charismatically dominates the screen. Bello is a marvellous foil as his wife, with a power and sexuality that blitzes. Their relationship is also central to the film’s themes: after the dramatic events in Tom’s life things change and Cronenberg again poses incisive questions about what it is we love in a partner. Ed Harris is, as always, about as authentic an actor as you can get – imbuing Fogarty with a palpable menace. Equally impressive is a small role by William Hurt as another nasty mobster, Richie Cusack. Ashton Holmes debuts as Tom’s son Jack, and again his character raises fascinating and ultimately shocking issues as his pacifist leanings are pushed to the limit by the school bullies.

From its wonderful central mystery of whether Tom is the victim of mistaken identity, or someone who has reinvented himself to escape his past, through to its final extraordinary scene which will sear into your consciousness, this is a film which shows a true master director at work and shouldn’t be missed.




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