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Darkness on the Edge of Town
2005-10-06 22:05
by Ryan Wilkins

"I'm the luckiest man alive."

These words are uttered by Tom Stall—family man, business owner, and backbone of the Millbrook, Ind. community—in the opening act of A History of Violence (New Line Cinema), the newest effort from director David Cronenberg. Tom and his wife have just made passionate love in the attic of their home, role-playing as quarterback and cheerleader. It's an innocent game for an innocent couple, recalling the excitement of a youth the two weren't lucky enough to share. The problem is, it's the last innocent moment that either character will have. It's a dark and scary world outside of Millbrook, and dusk is closing in on this perfect family in this perfect town.

Darkness, in this case, comes in the form of a pair of drifters who hold up Tom's diner ("A good place to eat"). As viewers, we know these men because the film opens with their banter in a protracted scene—a scene that reveals vile cruelty and the murder of a young girl. Nevertheless, their presence is a fleeting one, as Tom reacts to the drifters with the self-assurance of man who's handled a weapon before. Both men are dispensed of in the blink of an eye. It's the first of many bursts of violence in a film about just that—and much more—and it brims with the satisfaction of a righteous vigilante.

And righteousness is what we're supposed to feel; it's what Cronenberg (The Fly, Dead Ringers, Naked Lunch) is setting us up to feel, and more. Everyone who dies in A History of Violence—everyone who gets his comeuppance—is a Bad Man with Bad Intentions. What elevates this material above the level of Death Wish (1974) and Dirty Harry (1971), however, is the way Cronenberg makes you deal with it. His violence is fast, wet, and brutal—and he consistently hangs on the images for a few extra frames, never letting the audience off the hook. He understands that for every violent action there is an equal and opposite emotional reaction, and he wants us to understand that too. It's this awareness that makes A History of Violence the moving experience that it is.

The plot moves swiftly from the execution of the two drifters, as the local media holds up Tom (Viggo Mortensen) as "an American hero." But A History of Violence is not a hero's tale; this is a fall from grace. Everything in Tom's life changes after the shooting in the diner. His children begin to look at him differently, with a combination of shock and awe. Neighbors begin to whisper. Even his wife, Edie (the lovely Maria Bello), views his actions with ambivalence, equally repulsed as she is turned on. How could mild-mannered Tom be capable something so scary?

The question is compounded by the appearance of a group of low men, obviously from the city, led by a gruff gangster (Ed Harris) who claims he knows Tom. Except he says Tom is really "Joey Cusack," the brother of a Philadelphia mob boss, and that Tom didn't used to be so mild-mannered after all. "Ask him," Harris sneers to Edie in a biting scene, "why he's so good at killing people." It's an appropriate question, because it's clear that Edie's been wondering that herself. Could Tom have spent his youth—the youth she didn't share with him—as someone, something else?

It would be unprofessional of me to reveal one of film's most important twists—that is, whether or not Tom Stall's case is really one of mistaken identity. Luckily, Cronenberg renders the answer to that question all but irrelevant, because—in the words of Scott Foundas—"the moment Tom Stall squeezes that trigger, he becomes Joey Cusack in a way, regardless of whether he ever was Joey Cusack before." Violence transforms him.

The violence in Cronenberg's film also transforms the people around Tom, bleeding into their psyche. The first example appears in Tom's son, Jack, who is relentlessly picked-on at school. Though Jack is certainly an outcast who is more than happy to capitulate to the school's one-dimensional bully (the worst character in the film, at the service of a weak subplot), his father's outburst triggers something inside of him, and Jack lashes out with rage in his eyes. The second example comes in the most jarring scene in the film—one that left me shaken long after it disappeared from the screen. Violence, again, has made its way into the Stall's world and neither Tom nor Edie quite know how to deal with it. What ensues between them can only be described as a rape that is as unsettling as it as arousing, as legitimately violent as it is tender. It leaves both characters physically bruised and mentally drained. A counterpoint to the couple's innocent role-play, it is in this scene that Bello gives the film an emotional core. It's a layered performance—the best in the film.

Which is not to say that Bello is alone in accomplishment. Mortensen embodies the laid-back easiness of a small-town father while not completely eschewing the physicality that made him Tolkien's King. Ed Harris is great, as usual, providing the story with a tangible sense of impending danger; few actors command more respect with their voice alone. But the real prize goes to William Hurt, in a delicious role as the villain behind the villain. This is a bravura performance from a man who's spent much of his career playing dopes—it's fast, cheap, and totally in control.

Adapted for the screen by Josh Olson, from John Wagner's graphic novel, AHoV is a simple story—not unlike Sam Mendes' Road to Perdition (2002), which was adapted from the same medium. And yet, while Cronenberg's film is equally as fatalistic as Perdition, there's nothing pretentious or ironic about the material (take a guess how I feel about Mendes' film). Olson's screenplay takes a clear look at life in the Midwest, never condescending to the characters, while Peter Suschitzky's cinematography uses the landscapes as a reassuring force. Sure, Millbrook is just a little Lynchian in its perfection, but it's also home.

That Cronenberg kept the name of the original text for his film is significant, because A History of Violence is truly that: a study of the past. Everything that happens in this film—every bloody, painful event—is the result of decisions that were made long ago, without regard for the future. That violence serves as a cyclical force in the film is an important lesson given the dire consequences. What Cronenberg leaves open for interpretation is the question of whether or not we can escape from our past—and more importantly, our lies.

All that being said, A History of Violence is far from a perfect film, regardless of the way I sing its praises. The third act is really a tangent to the preceding events, leaving various issues unresolved. The narrative, while simple and direct, sometimes moves too quickly without laying the proper groundwork for twists and turns. And the subplot involving Tom's son, Jack, is completely transparent in its goal toward helping the overarching plot along.

But all of that is secondary to the way A History of Violence elicits raw emotion. No film this year has left me shaken and bewildered the way Cronenberg's latest picture has, with its haunting final scene, completed in perfect silence. Deconstructing art—whether it's film, literature, or comedy—is perhaps my favorite pastime, but nothing I can say in conversation or write in a review can properly capture the experience of walking out of the theater at a complete and utter loss, overcome with emotion. That's David Cronenberg's legacy with A History of Violence, the best film of the Canadian director's fascinating and controversial career.

2005-10-06 23:24:53
1.   Joe
Wow, Ryan. You totally nailed it.

When people have asked me what I thought of it, the best I could come up with was "under-cooked." I think you can agree.

Good story, good acting (Bello nomination?), but something was just, I dunno, missing?

2005-10-07 09:28:38
2.   Cliff Corcoran
The problem with this film, for me, was that the director's attempt to ground the film in the mudanities of every day life clashed with the exaggerated comic book dialogue and action sequences. I just don't think you can give such a straight treatment to a graphic novel without also toning down the language and increasing plausability of the action. This movie was of two minds and they never met.

Also I can't stand William Hurt and I thought casting him in such a juicy part was a tremendous waste. Harris, Mortensen and Bello were all excellent, but I find it hard to believe that they couldn't find better child actors.

Ultimately I thought this was a deeply flawed film. It had very little impact on me and I'm not sure I would recommend it.

2005-10-18 13:44:51
3.   Jason Wojciechowski
Cliff hit the nail on the head with regard to the children: they were awful!

And, actually, with regard to everything else. My reaction when I came out? "Why did I just watch this movie?" I enjoyed it while I was watching it, but in the end, I don't think Cronenberg said anything.

Actually, I think there's an interesting comparison here to Green Street Hooligans, which was way more terrible than AHoV, but similarly fraught with issues of "What's the point?" If all the two directors are saying is, "Violence changes people," then I ask, "Why'd you spend so many millions of dollars to say something so obvious?"

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