William HurtDavid CronenbergEd HarrisViggo Mortensen
A History of Violence
Medium: film
Year: 2005
Director: David Cronenberg
Writer: Josh Olson, John Wagner, Vince Locke
Keywords: Oscar-nominated, gangster
Country: USA, Germany
Actor: Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, Ed Harris, William Hurt
Format: 96 minutes
Url: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0399146/
Website category: Oscars
Review date: 4 May 2008
A David Cronenberg film. That says a lot. The Fly, Naked Lunch, eXistenZ... if nothing else, this is a filmmaker you remember. I'd heard good things about this movie, so I picked it up. The big question was whether it would persuade me to pick up Eastern Promises, a 2007 Cronenberg film that received similar reviews and also stars Viggo Mortensen. So what did I think?
For starters, it's more accessible than you'd expect. Cronenberg is known for making way-out weird shit, full of freaks and outsiders. However here we have Viggo Mortensen playing Tom Stall, a nice man with a wife, two kids and his own business (a cafe) in an almost mythically cosy small American town. It's sweet. It's wholesome. You could imagine this being made in the 1950s with Jimmy Stewart... or at least until the killers turn up, anyway. Someone is looking for a bad man called Joey Cusack. They think they've found him. The plot of this film is practically one huge spoiler for itself, so I'm stopping there.
This film exists in two worlds, both of which are almost mythical. We've seen them a million times. They're both part of America's self-image and this film is consciously plugging into the long cinematic heritage of both of them. One is the "Perfect Small Town Full Of Kind Good People" and the other is a world of gangsters, crime and killing. Bringing the two together is what makes this film interesting. Like Audition, this is a film that feels a lot more graphic than it is. The world of Millbrook, Indiana, is painted with enough care and patience that when they arrive, the killings don't feel like movie moments. We've had to wait for them, yet they're over in a flash with nothing to show but the body count. What's more, Cronenberg actually toned them down. Both the script and the original cut contained violence that didn't make it into the final film. Cronenberg wanted it to feel real. He's trying to make us think about the violence and what it means for the characters in both worlds, which he wouldn't have achieved by turning this into an action movie.
The cast is outstanding, with the understandable exception of Tom Stall's young daughter. Okay, so she's practically a toddler. You can hardly expect Sir Laurence Olivier. She still got on my nerves. However apart from her, everything's amazing. Ed Harris is every bit as good as you'd expect, while William Hurt is going beyond even his usual limits. He got an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor, despite the fact that we only meet his character at the end. However more important than them are the central couple of Viggo Mortensen and Maria Bello, who do strong work in portraying two people caught at the intersection of these two worlds. Their sex scenes are particularly noteworthy. It's not just Hollywood sex, but insight into the relationship of two people who've been married for twenty years. Sex in films tends to be adolescent. Young pretty things tear off each other's clothes and discover each other for the first time. This is completely different. There are two sex scenes in this film, both telling us a huge amount about the characters and both a tad uncomfortable to watch. Again Cronenberg is avoiding the eye-candy approach.
As for Viggo Mortensen, his performance is completely different when you watch this film a second time. He's the physical embodiment of the film's themes and he does almost all of it non-verbally, as is right and appropriate.
My problem with the film concerns its last act. Everything that went before had been wonderful, but by stepping completely into the underworld we lose that real-world grounding and sense of transgression. Despite all the good work that's been put in, on some level it becomes just another gangster film in which everything happens as you'd expect. For me it was almost an anticlimax. I'd been expecting something more Old Testament. It's a bit too morally easy, with our protagonist shown to be up against bad people who deserve everything we assume is coming to them. They even make the first move.
As a result it comes across as almost action hero rather than something more disturbing, which I think might have better served the film and its themes. It would have made more sense plotwise too. Here he wanders into the lion's den and seems almost taken by surprise when things turn ugly. It could have been far more shocking and memorable had he gone there to kill. Admittedly Cronenberg's trying to keep things on a more realistic level rather than letting things get comic-booky, although ironically this film was indeed adapted from a comic. Way to go, John Wagner! You deserved better than Stallone's Judge Dredd.
I'm also not sure about the last scene. It's the obvious and correct thing to do and I can respect it as a valid choice for ending the film, but it's neither a strong image nor a memorable scene. It goes on too long for the former, dealing almost entirely in individual close-ups rather than wider shots to provide context, but it stops before we can get the latter. Instead it simply ends on a question. Two characters meet each other's eyes. It's fitting and appropriate for the film that Cronenberg's made, though.
If at all possible, for this one I'd recommend avoiding even the tiniest spoilers. Hell, if I were you I wouldn't read this review. Whoops. In my opinion even the trailer reveals too much, although admittedly the marketing folks need to be allowed to sell their movie. This film will be powerful however you watch it, but it'll be a killer if you go in knowing nothing at all. Besides, the world can't have too much Cronenberg. Eastern Promises? Yeah, I'll give it a whirl...