A History of Violence: A Review

A History of Violence

Tom Stall/Joey Cusack: Viggo Mortensen
Edie Stall: Maria Bello
Richie Cusack: William Hurt
Carl Fogarty: Ed Harris
Jack Stall: Ashton Holmes
Sarah Stall: Heidi Hayes
Sheriff Sam Carney: Peter MacNeill
Leland Jones: Stephen McHattie
Billy Orser: Greg Bryk

Directed by David Cronenberg

Running time: 96 minutes. Rated R


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There is a relatively new show on the Discovery Channel called Who the (Bleep) Did I Marry?  As you might have guessed from the title, it’s about spouses who learn years into their marriage that the men or women they have married are hiding secret lives.  Some are serial killers, others drug dealers, rapists, etc.

Now one would think that this kind of scenario is pretty rare, but estimates say that there are several thousand married couples in the country who are hiding secret lives like this.  The reason I bring this up is because the plot summary for David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence sounds like it could be the next episode in the t.v. series.

Tom (Viggo Mortensen) and Edie Stall (Maria Bello) are living the good life.  No, they are not sitting on the beach drinking Margaritas.  Theirs is the small town kind where people say hello, and everyone knows one another.  Edie is a lawyer and Tom owns a small neighborhood diner.  They  have two children Jack (Ashton Holmes) and Sarah (Heidi Hayes), are respected by everyone they know, and are as passionately in love with one another now as they were nearly twenty years ago.  So essentially, life is good for the Stall clan.  All of that is about to change for good.

Late one night at his diner, two men attempt to rob Tom and assault his co-workers.  From the opening scene of the movie, we see these two men as cold blooded killers with no remorse, so we know what they are capable of.  Tom seemingly goes from a nice, unassuming man to hero by killing both men in a violent and spectacular fashion.  Suddenly Tom is a local hero and gains national press attention.

Before long however, the men that turn up outside his house and at his diner are worse than those he killed.  Led by Carl Fogerty ( Ed Harris), these men act as though they know Tom, but for some reason keep calling him Joey Cusack.  Carl has only one eye and appears to intimate that it is Tom who is responsible for it.  Could they be mistaken?  Could Tom really be this Joey from Philadelphia?

Due to the fact that this movie has a fairly straightforward plot, yes Tom is in fact this Joey from Philadelphia, but he does everything in his power to deny it to his wife, his children, the local cop and probably even to himself.  As the title suggests, Tom has a past that he has been running from his entire life but if finally caught up to him.

There is a subplot involving Tom’s son Jack and a school bully.  Far from being needlessly tacked on, these evolving scenes show Jack as a kid who is a bit of an outsider.  He’s nice and unassuming like his father, but finds himself the target of a few classmates.  Spurred on by his father’s heroic act, Jack finally stands up to these boys in a way that is frightening.

All of the events lead up to a return to home for Tom who must confront a past pushed deep down for the last 20 years.  Along the way he sees a part of himself that he shunted long ago.  Both terrified and thrilled, the repercussions of that night in the diner and the events that follow bring up many questions about the nature of violence and how we are all capable of utilizing that darker side we all have.

It must be said that director David Cronenberg’s vision of this taut, thrilling, and thought-provoking film film is pure genius.  Viewers expecting big plot twists will be disappointed because Cronenberg is interested in substance rather than flash here.

Things like the nature of violence in all of us, our use of violence to end disputes, the effect of violence thrust into a good family, and suddenly realizing your spouse, lover, husband and father may not be who you thought he was are all themes and ideas of high impact here.

There are two scenes of high contrast in the movie.  Early on we get a scene of  Tom and Edie in what appears to be a rare night alone together.  She dresses up as a cheerleader and attacks Tom.  There is a real sense of enduring love and a passion for one another that has lasted for two decades here.  Despite the sex scene, there tenderness and love.

Later as things begin to unravel, and Edie discovers a side of Tom she never knew, we get a much different sex scene.  It starts out as Edie trying to get away from Tom, but turns into a scene of hot, aggressive lovemaking on the stairs that feels animalistic.  More than any other, these two scenes illustrate the two sides of Tom.

For Edie in particular it brings up questions about how Tom has really felt these last 2o years.  Did he really love her?  Was the lie to protect you or himself?  Find out your last name is probably stolen and how that effects your identity as a wife, and simply as a person.  These are all ideas and questions brought up and then left mostly unanswered for the audience to ponder for themselves.

A History of Violence sees Viggo Mortensen and Maria Bello in top form along with an excellent Ed Harris and a William Hurt in a role that gave him Oscar talk upon release of the film.  In what could have easily been a throwaway role, Ashton Holmes really shines as Jack who’s effect by the events of the film are as seismic as anything else.

Cronenberg reigns in his love of weird effects and horror style gore for a much cleaner (yet always violently powerful) vision.  The film should be shown at film schools to show lean, taut storytelling at it’s best.  There are no “padded” scenes to bloat the film.  Everything in it needs to be there.  Nothing more, nothing less.

Anyone looking for an amazingly powerful film that will stay in their memories long after viewing it should watch this movie as soon as possible.  I can’t implore enough to anyone how good it really is.


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