Thursday, August 18, 2011

A History of Violence

Originally Written and Posted at on 6/30/06 w/ Additional Edits.

Based on the graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke, A History of Violence is about a quiet, peaceful man living in a small, quiet town with a loving family whose lived is changed forever by an act of heroism. He is then confronted by a gangster who claims that he was once a killer. Directed by David Cronenberg and adapted screenplay by Josh Olson, the film is a study of a man who could be a case of mistaken identity or has a violent past that's finally caught up to him that threatens to shatter the idyllic life he has with his family. Starring Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, Ashton Holmes, Stephen McHattie, Ed Harris, and William Hurt. A History of Violence is a sprawling, intelligent, thrilling masterpiece from one of cinema's eccentric auteurs.

A young little girl names Sarah Stall (Heidi Hayes) screams in her bedroom after having a nightmare. She is then comforted by her father Tom (Viggo Mortensen) while her older teenage brother Jack (Ashton Holmes) suggests that she puts a nightlight on to keep the monsters away. Mother Edie (Maria Bello) looks on to see that the next morning, Sarah feels much better as everyone goes on their daily life in their quaint, small town in the middle of Indiana. Edie works at a local law firm while Tom runs his own diner that often features regular customers from the town. Jack meanwhile, makes a great catch during baseball practice that upsets the school's sport star Bobby (Kyle Schmid) as Jack's use of nonviolence only antagonizes the bully. The day ends with Jack spending time with his girlfriend Judy (Sumela Kay), Sarah at a sleep over, and Tom and Edie reliving their youth on a great night.

Then one night as Tom is about to close his diner, two men enter wanting for a cup of coffee when they start to cause some trouble. With one of the men in Billy (Greg Byrk) is harassing a waitress and the other named Leland (Stephen McHattie) is holding the place hostage, Tom takes drastic action and immediately kills the two men while getting injured. Tom becomes a hero as he is shocked by his violent actions though the town thought what he did was brave. The next day after Tom returns to the hospital, his diner was busier than ever as Edie helped out when a few mysterious men arrive. One of them was a man named Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris) who carries a big scar and disfigured eye on the left side of his face as he tells Tom he recognizes him as a man named Joey Cusack. Tom tells Fogarty that he has no idea who Joey Cusack is as him and Edie tell Fogarty to leave the diner. Edie calls a local sheriff in Sam Carney (Peter MacNeill) to question Fogarty as he learns that Fogarty works under a local mob syndicate in Philadelphia under the authority of Richie Cusack (William Hurt).

Tom becomes paranoid about Fogarty's presence as he believes that he might come back while Jack's nonviolence stance is also pushed to the edge by Bobby. On a day when she takes Sarah shopping, Edie finds herself stalked by Fogarty as she decides to put a restraining order on Fogarty and his men. Tom is upset over Jack's actions as he learns that Fogarty has been stalking Edie when Fogarty arrives at the house again with Jack as his hostage. A standoff that turns ugly finally shakes the life of the entire family as Edie demands to know the truth from Tom as he lays injured in the hospital. For Tom, he is forced to reveal everything as he decides to meet and confront Richie Cusack in Philadelphia.

A film about violence, notably in a setting like a small town in Indiana might not seem like the type of environment for a director like David Cronenberg. Yet, violence is often a subject that Cronenberg does as the film is really more of a character study piece. Cronenberg is aware of what the audience could expecting but he does it in a way that builds up momentum while subverting the audiences' expectation as he makes the character of Tom Stall a far more complex character. What is more surprising that for a film that runs at around 96 minutes, Cronenberg and screenwriter Josh Olsen keeps the momentum and many of the film's scenes told in a more simplistic approach. Particularly in the way they also approach many of the film's sexual and violent content.

Cronenberg's been notorious for his approach to sex and violence as the two sex scenes between Tom and Edie are very different. The first is very playful and innocent while the second is more brutal in the terms of where they are emotionally. The violence is also very graphic from the film's first opening scene which has a long, opening take of four minutes as the whole sequence stands for about seven minutes. This sequence is very reminiscent of a very similar violent scene of the first 20 minutes of Sergio Leone's classic epic-Western, Once Upon a Time in the West. Then the film cuts to a far more innocence sequence of a young girl screaming from a nightmare. It's Olsen's script and structure that really maintains a sense of momentum and development of the film's major characters. Even when the film requires some sense of tension.

Cronenberg and Olsen's display of conflict is a theme that is reminiscent of all of Cronenberg's movies. For this film, the conflict is about a man dealing with his own self where could be a case of mistaken identity or was he another man with a dark past? It's truly a Cronenberg film for that conflict, even when Tom's actions affect his family, particularly his own wife and son who have to contend with their own identities. Even in the third act when Tom confronts Richie, it's one of the best scenes because of why Richie is trying to find his brother and his hatred over him. Still, Cronenberg uses many of those moments, even the violent ones to have some kind of emotional aftermath where the film's ending is perfect for its tone. While it might seem to be Cronenberg's most accessible work, it doesn't stray away from the themes that he's delved in throughout his career.

Helping Cronenberg with his vision is longtime cinematographer Peter Suschitzky whose photography style captures a serene atmosphere early in the film that turns ugly as the lighting becomes more disturbing for its tone. Suschitzky also takes full advantage of the film's locations where most of it is in Canada to bring an idyllic, quaint American small town feel that later shifts to more darker lighting and claustrophobic tone in the film's Philadelphia sequences. Longtime production designer Carol Spier and art director James McAteer also do great work in the film's look from the world of the small town where everything looks like an American small town to the shift of the more worldly look of Richie Cusack. Longtime costume designer and Cronenberg's sister Denise also captures the look of the small town with plaid shirts that is in sharp contrast to the black suit that Ed Harris wears.

Longtime editor Ronald Sanders does a wonderful job with the film's editing by presenting some tight cutting, shifting sequences, perspectives, and a pacing style that is true to the film's tone that doesn't make it too long or too short. Sound mixer Glen Gauthier and editors Wayne Griffin and Michael O'Farrell also do great work on the film's sound that captures the atmosphere of the film's tone from its building structure. Longtime composer Howard Shore also does great work in creating dramatic tension and intensity to the film's many scenes while not making them into manipulative moments as many of his presentation is quaint and lyrical that works for the brilliant composer.

Finally, there's the film's amazing cast that includes such notable small performances from Sumela Kay as Jack's girlfriend Judy, Kyle Schmid as the local bully Bobby, Gerry Quigley and Deborah Drakeford as Tom's diner employees, and longtime Cronenberg actor Peter MacNeill as the suspicious but good-hearted sheriff Sam. Greg Byrk and Stephen McHattie make memorable appearances as the two thugs in the film's opening scene and the diner scene when they try to rob Tom and his diner. Heidi Hayes is also good as the young Sarah who is the real innocent figure of the Stall family who keeps them grounded as she does something really amazing in the film's last scene. Ashton Holmes is wonderful as Jack, a young man whose ideals about violence is changed as he struggles to deal with his own ideas and the role that his father is.

While he's only in the film for about ten minutes in the final act, William Hurt delivers a performance that is just filled with shock as he plays a crime boss with a whole lot of charm and hatred. Hurt's performance is so memorable and so filled with great dialogue, it ends up standing out on his own as he brings a lot of terror and black humor to the performance that it's truly a magnificent performance from the often underrated actor. Ed Harris is also great as the menacing Carl Fogarty with a quiet, stoic presence while he maintains a sense of restrained anger and coolness to his role that makes him a far memorable villain. Maria Bello is the film's best supporting performance as Edie who starts off as a woman who seems to have the perfect life until she and her own life is threatened by not just these dark forces but also the possibility of her husband's identity. Bello brings an old-school style of old Hollywood acting that is more complex than the typical wife role as she combines a sense of strength and darkness to her role as she is now becoming one of the more overlooked actresses of her generation.

Viggo Mortensen brings what is probably his best performance to date as Tom Stall. Early in the film, Mortensen has a nice, boyish image that is filled with innocence and comfort that he is very likeable in the film around everyone including the audience. Yet, when he takes action, his development changes as he has to go deeper into darker areas. Mortensen really owns the film as he combines his own sense of paranoia, darkness, heartbreak, and guilt into a great role as he has great chemistry with all of the actors around him. Notably his scenes with Bello and Holmes reveal his range in emotions while his scenes with Harris and Hurt reveal how he can stand out with those actors. Overall, it's a magnificent performance from the actor who's been known for his work in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

For anyone who wants a smart, thrilling mystery should check out A History of Violence from the often cerebral and disturbing David Cronenberg. Fans of Cronenberg no doubt, will find this film to be among as one of his best. With a great cast led by Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, Ed Harris, and a cameo-of-sorts from William Hurt, the film has a lot going for while being faithful to the actual graphic novel of the same name. While for anyone interested in Cronenberg will find this film as a good start, it will also reveal how much of a brilliant storyteller he is. In the end, A History of Violence is without a doubt one of the year's best films.

© thevoid99 2011

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