A History of Violence

Robin Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Robin Clifford 
A History of Violence
Laura Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Laura Clifford 

Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) is happily married to Edie (Maria Bello), loves their two kids and owns a diner in the small town of Millbrook, Indiana. When a pair of ruthlesskillers enters his shop and prepares to do some serious mayhem, Tom stops them with deadly force and becomes a local hero. But, the spotlight of fame will have dire consequences for the family man in “A History of Violence.”

Filmmaker David Cronenberg is best known for his bizarre, sometimes disturbing works like “Videodrome,” Dead Ringers” and “Naked Lunch.” So, why did he decide to adapt the graphic novel crime thriller by John Wagner and Vince Locke (screenplay by Josh Olson) as his latest work? I ask this because “A History of Violence” is too shallow a work to befit the imagination and abilities of a man who has shocked his audiences by laying bare human emotions.

The film’s distributor has strongly requested that the plot twists in “A History of Violence” not be revealed, so I won’t. But, it seems to me that the shocking secret is neither shocking or secret as the truth about Tom is revealed very early on in the story, leaving the bulk of the film to shoot-‘em-up action thriller status. Nothing really happens that isn’t telegraphed and made obvious.

The sketchy, episodic screenplay feels like it took its source material and simply transferred it to the screen without embellishment or development. While the very talented team of actors do their best to flesh out their sketchy characters they are not given much to work with. Viggo Mortensen is doing his best to shake the stereotype of his “Lord of the Rings” character and his everyman, Tom, is not what he seems nearly from the start – a bit too obviously, I think. His Tom lacks any feeling or dimension as the actor goes through the motions.

The rest of the cast, while doing some fine characterizations, is left by the wayside by the stilted story and routine plot twists. Maria Bello is acceptable as loyal, loving Edie but is not given much chance to make a real imprint. Ashton Holmes, as teen son Jack, is hampered by the script that makes him a smart aleck weakling, easily bullied by fellow student Bobby (Kyle Schmid), only to have him turn around and beat the hell out of his tormentors. The transformation made me say, “Huh?”

Ed Harris does a yeoman’s job as the one-eyed crime boss, Carl Fogarty, but is out of the picture too soon and the film suffers for it. William Hurt, in what can only be considered the coda for “A History of Violence,” chews the scenery with aplomb but he too is given scarce air time. Of the rest of the stick figure supporting cast only Peter MacNeill, as the town’s Sheriff Sam Carney, is given a chance to develop into a real, sympathetic figure.

Josh Olson’s screen adaptation of “A History of Violence” has the feel of a work that is lifted, without enhancement, from its source material. There is little by way of flow from one scene to the next with each action sequence played as a separate set piece. It’s like reading a book where each chapter is supposed to be able to stand alone as well as be part of the big picture. You can’t really have it both ways and, because of this, the film has a stilted feel to its episodes. Each action or thriller sequence is well enough crafted but the sum of the parts is less than a whole work.

A History of Violence” feels like an academic exercise for its creator, Cronenberg, rather than an effort to bring cinematic life to a graphic novel. He appears to be more concerned with how each scene is played rather that bringing it all together into a complete work. Truthfully, I was more than a little disappointed and give it a C+.

When a couple of bad guys threaten the employees of Stall's diner, Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen, "The Lord of the Rings'" Aragorn) takes almost uncanny action, killing both men before they knew what hit them.  Tom's ensuing celebrity brings a black-suited mobster in a big black car to the small town and he has an interesting accusation to make. Carl Fogaty (Ed Harris, "Radio") claims that Tom is really Joey Cusack and that Joey has "A History of Violence."

David Cronenberg's ("Spider") elegant direction of Josh Olson's adaptation of John Wagner and Vince Locke's graphic novel almost seems like overkill for this spare and obvious tale. There is never really any question as to Tom's identity and the simplistic message is that violence begets violence in a never-ending human cycle, not the greatest of insights.  What makes "A History of Violence" special is how Cronenberg adds weight to the graphic novel while visually glorifying the medium.

Tom's story is mirrored in his teenaged son's.  Jack Stall (Ashton Holmes, TV's "One Life to Live") is the victim of bullying at high school.  It is a beautiful piece of work when the pecking order is established, Jack's tormentor Bobby (Kyle Schmid, "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants") faced down by the guys who threaten Tom's diner as they're driving into town - crisscross goes the violence across this film's landscape.  And just as those thugs menace Tom's waitress, so does Fogaty go after Tom's wife, appealing to her curiosity while threatening her and her young daughter Sarah (Heidi Hayes) with niceties.  Edie Stall's (Maria Bello, "Assault on Precinct 13") belief in her husband begins to crumble (an early, playful sex scene between the two is mirrored with an uglier, more urgent encounter on an interior stairwell) and eventually he goes to face his past, namely a big city mobster who happens to be his brother, Richie Cusack (William Hurt, "The Village"), a man who wants him dead.

Viggo Mortensen's gotten a lot of praise for this performance, but frankly, I found him to be turning on and off like a light switch.  He does engender sympathy, however, as a man who tried to leave his violent past behind, a family man whose family will be forever changed (the character's name, Stall, defines putting off the inevitable.)  Better is Bello, the fiercely maternal Edie who gathers her cubs and watches her husband warily, like a stranger. Ashton Holmes is also terrific as the pacifist son who finds himself picking up a weapon to defend his dad.  Harris is all smooth insinuation, an assassin tricked out like the FBI.  This most entertaining performance comes from William Hurt, chewing scenery like there's no tomorrow.

Cronenberg soaks his film in old world nostalgia, framing it like a graphic novel. Cinematographer Peter Suschitzky ("Spider") and production designer Carol Spier ("eXistenZ") use predominantly green tints which emphasize the rural and the washed out mints of the 1950's. Special effects makeup artists Patrick Baxter and Sean Sansom) splatter the gore in a heightened fashion appropriate to the source material while Howard Shore's ("The Aviator") score emphasizes its dark underbelly.

"A History of Violence" wraps on a scene of twisted Americana, like David Lynch crossed with Norman Rockwell.  This is one of Cronenberg's best works, the filmmaker proving its not the tale but the telling.

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