by Montgomery Lopez
[Montgomery Lopez concentrates on the science fiction/horror/fantasy slice of the blogosphere at his Monster Scifi Show Blog]
Having known David Cronenberg primarily as a horror genre director, A History of Violence doesn’t exactly appear to be Cronenberg’s cup of tea on the surface. Even the summary from IMDB for this film, “a mild mannered man becomes a local hero through an act of violence, which sets off repercussions that will shake his family to its very core,” doesn’t necessarily sound like Cronenberg material. Even the opening 4-minute one-take shot is not representative of a typical Cronenberg film. But there is evidence of a thematic similarity that resonates throughout his films.
As with many of his films, there’s a constant thread of some type of metamorphosis within the main character like Max Renn (James Woods) in Videodrome, Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) in The Fly, and even Rose (the late Marilyn Chambers) in Rabid. With Videodrome, Renn's body is altered by the disturbing hallucinations he experiences due to watching Videodrome. In The Fly, Brundle is changed by an experiment gone horribly wrong. And in Rabid, Rose is infected after a botched surgery. These are all external forces that change these characters against their will.
In A History of Violence, Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) fits the metamorphosis trend perfectly and goes one step further. His metamorphosis occurs as a result of the external forces represented by the two killers in the opening shot, but there is also something happening to Stall internally. The violence he is able to unleash throughout the film—while necessary to protect his family—not only changes him but changes him in the eyes of his family. Granted, this is not the typical weird mutated Cronenberg freakishness I have come to love and expect, but I believe the true horror comes from the fact that we all have the capacity of violence in one form or another.
Throughout the film, as the violence escalates, we see how each family member is not only affected by it but also altered forever. Tom’s son Jack (Ashton Holmes) has been dealing with a bully by using non-physical means, but there comes a time where enough is enough and Jack does what he feels is right and justified. While we cheer for Jack, Tom smacks his son in the face for the violence he commits as Jack’s action puts the bully in the hospital.
Another example is Tom’s relationship with his wife, Edie (Maria Bello). We see their love for each as being strong and sensual. There is a sexually charged role-playing scene where Edie gets dressed up as a cheerleader, pretending her parents are asleep next door. Their love and intimacy is genuine. But towards the end, Edie has become so repulsed by Tom's secret identity that they get into a fight which leads to a disturbing scene of rough sex skirting comfortably close to rape. Uncomfortably erotic though it is, once the act is done Edie leaves Tom as there is no intimacy left. In each case, after the act is committed by Stall's respective family members their relationship to him is markedly different.
Although I highly enjoyed A History of Violence, there is just one weak spot for me. As the film nears its climax, we meet Richie Cusack as played by William Hurt. Cusack is Tom's older brother (you’ll understand this when see the movie). Though Hurt's performance is noteworthy by Oscar standards, I feel his comedic approach ultimately hurts the film. On the other hand, Ed Harris' performance as enforcer Carl Fogarty is a menacing baddie which radically plays against the type of character he usually plays. The confrontation between Carl and Tom is wonderful to watch as the intensity builds, but gets played out far too short for my taste.
Still, A History of Violence is another example of Cronenberg's ability to bring the best out of his cast, especially the actors who play the Stall family.