A History of Violence

BY Neil Fauerso

David Cronenberg, like David Lynch, Jane Campion, or Peter Greenaway, inspires strong responses. His fans are loyal and bedazzled by his grotesque and gorgeous landscapes of sacrifice, madness, and love—and his detractors’ furor is unmatched.

Those nonfans who have been “duped” into seeing one of Cronenberg’s more mainstream films (Existenz, A History of Violence) are outraged. Why? The same reason some Coen brothers’ films garner so much ire—they create peerless, elegant facsimiles of archetypal genres and then subvert and question them. In this case, A History of Violence is the cinematic thriller equivalent of someone telling you a bawdy story and then questioning why you laughed.

The film grafts several favorite American narratives into one seemingly placid (and plasticky) thread. The Hitchcockian wrong man, the vigilante, and the family under siege are wrapped up in the story of the Stall family. Tom (Viggo Mortensen) is an agreeable, masculine, all-American dad who runs a town-square diner in quaint Millbrook, Indiana. He loves his wife (a lot) and his kids. Then, two vicious (and exceedingly boring, as made clear in a brilliant and humorous opening) killers try to rob his diner, and Tom, as only a hero would, literally blows their heads off. Everyone in Millbrook is ecstatic, but Tom’s not so sure. He’s uneasy, he senses something coming on. Sure enough, a bunch of Eastern mobsters shows up, led by the one-eyed and nearly mythic boss Carl Fogarty (an incredible Ed Harris). Carl is sure he knows Tom as Joey Cusack, another tough guy from Philadelphia—so sure, he has no qualms about sticking around.

A History of Violence is a simple, tightly coiled film (95 minutes) that contains multitudes. It is a film about, of course, violence, but more about avenues in which we accept and even advocate it. It plays as an ominous and engaging thriller/ drama, but the violence (extreme, but never excessive), strange humor, and overriding perversion and tenderness render it an unshakable experience.

Anchored by a brilliant and subtle performance by Viggo Mortensen, and two charismatic, mesmerizing turns by Ed Harris and William Hurt, A History of Violence becomes either completely baffling or completely enthralling. To me, it’s a hallucinogenic paean of dread and passion, and one of the most penetrating incisions of America by an outsider. Like Cronenberg’s other triumphs (Spider, Dead Ringers, The Fly, Naked Lunch, Videodome), a new world is created, but one that never is far from our flesh. In the end our American hero is both the everyman and the outlaw, and when it comes to killing people, they’re the one and the same.