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A History of Violence (DVD)

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“I think I loved it.” The voice who said it was youngish, 20s I’d guess, and walked behind me as the rest of the packed house left the theater. I’ve never left a film with this much chatter in the air. Who but David Cronenberg could take the simplest of stories, a low budget essentially flash-free presentation, and come up with a cage rattler like “A History of Violence”.


Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, Ed Harris, William Hurt, Ashton Holmes, Peter MacNeill, Stephen McHattie

“I think I loved it.” The voice who said it was youngish, 20s I’d guess, and walked behind me as the rest of the packed house left the theater. I’ve never left a film with this much chatter in the air. Who but David Cronenberg could take the simplest of stories, a low budget essentially flash-free presentation, and come up with a cage rattler like “A History of Violence”.

Tom Stalls (Viggo Mortensen, taking a vulnerable leap from Middle Earth hero Aragon in “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy) is Mr. Small Town. In an unextraordinary town he runs a boring little diner where regulars swap stories with counter staff that only regulars and counter staff would laugh at. Somewhere between a field and a road that spits up gravel when you drive on it is his home, a cozy could-be-B &B that he shares with his wife (Maria Bello) teenage son and golden curly-haired daughter. It’s sweet. It’s tongue-bitingly cheesy. It’s picture perfect. But the fun starts when two thugs looking for some quick cash pick Stalls’ Diner. Tom disposes of them with the brutal expertise of a smart bomb. The town is a but surprised at Tom’s swift reaction to violence with even grander violence, but are mostly proud and so soon settle back in their yokel ways. Balance is achieved. But when a trio of higher scale thugs comes calling on the diner, claiming Tom is actually a certain former colleague with a gift for ending lives, his identity comes into question. So begins a series of vivid encounters with bad men and blood that overlap this peaceful community like asbestos on whipped cream. Tom unravels little by little under the pressure of the accusations and the possible danger this new world can inflict on his family. Is Tom who he says he is, or a former ruffian hiding out in plaid work-shirts?

It feels real. Or at least “A History of Violence” leaves you feeling like you think you’d feel in a violent situation. Tense. Exhilarated. Frozen. In short…Whoa Bessie. Not that people haven’t been killed on film before, but when someone dies in a Cronenberg film, the reaction is tangible (recall “The Fly”’s vomit amputations, Scanners’ cranial eruptions). Your viscera scrambles for a darker hole to hide in while your arms involuntarily twitch in disgusto-fascinating reaction. In “History”, the feeling is abundant. Cronenberg layers the story in several parts, each one ending somewhat before you’d expect, each one taking Tom to a higher and more challenging level of his “abilities.” And as expected, all the while testing his place as his family’s leader and father figure. This could be where the story really wants to make its point: the rippling effects of violence and its mercilessness against all it touches. But it’s almost impossible. Many of the situations and dialogue are so simplistic they border on farce. When we first see Tom and his family, he’s just come to his daughter’s bedside after she’s had a nightmare. He comforts her in his kid soothing voice (and seems to keep it in every scene after)…. then the son comes in and does the same…. then the mother. Soon they’re all surrounding her in the same golly-gee shot. It’s so white bread wholesome it’s laughable, as is a minor story involving Tom’s son and a school bully. In the end, it waters down any sympathy you might have for the survival of this family, but not Tom. He’s a likable innocent from the start, even later when he’s stomping on necks and pounding noses into the skulls behind them. The “peaceful” moments seem amateur and awkward, but their contrast with the film’s violence is amazing, and not easily forgettable.

Cronenberg makes some very watchable choices in “History”, many of them seeming to ride a parallel course with Tarantino’s signature use of comedy and bloodshed. But whereas Tarantino’s shtick is now expected and delivered on cue in his work, Cronenberg prefers to unnerve the viewer by keeping it all in question. His worlds are normal enough to feel comfortable lounging in, with just enough jitter to arouse suspicion. In the case of “History”’s wholesomeness, Cronenberg challenges the viewer to ask himself or herself, “How am I supposed to react to this? Should I laugh? Is it appropriate? It seems funny, but something’s not right….” Which is usually where he swats you from your blindside. It’s a bumpy ride but I’ll take it any day.

Some good DVD extras : several comprehensive making-of and behind-the-scenes style featurettes, and most interestingly, a Cannes video diary.

Rating :
Reviewer : Colin Moore

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About Caffeinated Clint

The writer/publicist/producer who wears the editor hat on Moviehole. Favorite films include "Say Anything...", "The Hunt for Red October", "Jerry Maguire", "Almost Famous", "Die Hard", "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo", "Young Guns", "American Psycho", "Back to the Future" and the "Star Wars" series.
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