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A History of Violence   A-

New Line Cinema

Year Released: 2005
MPAA Rating: R
Director: David Cronenberg
Writer: Josh Olson (based on the graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke)
Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, William Hurt, Ed Harris, Ashton Holmes, Heidi Hayes, Stephen McHattie, Greg Bryk.

Review by Sean O'Connell

Overanalyze the title of David Cronenberg's cautionary tale A History of Violence and you might lose sight of the subtle, dark, and far from intimate message. The name certainly suggests our society's penchant for conflict and opens doors to worthy debate about a person's tolerance level for repeated acts of hate. But on a more basic level, A History of Violence tells you everything you need to know about main character Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) and the secrets he's attempting to hide.

Cronenberg opens his movie with stark contradictions that set the stage for the human drama to come. Two nondescript thugs leave a motel after murdering the staff (even a child is cut down by these criminals). Instead of trailing them, the film shifts gears to find the bucolic Indiana home of the Stall family. The director takes great pains to establish the normalcy of this loving brood. Daughter Sarah (Heidi Hayes) sports the purest bleach-blond locks, and son Jack (Ashton Holmes) frets over his afternoon softball match. Husband and wife team Tom and Edie (Maria Bello) sneak kisses, flirt, and reaffirm their love for each other at every turn. Their small-town routine couldn't be more comfortable, more American. It's important that Cronenberg doesn't dismiss this upbeat and hopeful side of the Stalls when America's darker elements muscle in on their peaceful existence like a shadow gradually stretching across a tree-lined street as the sun sets.

Trouble surfaces when the murderous criminals from the prologue arrive in Tom's diner after hours and demand service, brandishing weapons and threatening his wait staff without warning. Tom ferociously responds, killing both men but saving his customers and co-workers. His heroics earn him mention on the local newscasts, which catch the eye of Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris), a Philadelphia mobster who swears he knew Tom by another name -- Joey Cusack -- in another life.

The History mystery generates its own suspense. Is Tom really Joey? When did Tom meet Edie, and would she know about a possible former life? Are these criminals part of this straight man's checkered past? Cronenberg doesn't rush to solutions, so we fill in voids with our own conclusions then wait to see if we've guessed correctly.

Mortensen provides Tom with a blank mask to hide his character's skeletons. His portrayal so accurately rides an enigmatic fence that one line of dialogue completely changes how we view him. Bello is especially convincing in an emotionally supportive role. Because of the uncertainty surrounding Tom, we associate with Edie and receive vital bits of information at the same pace she does. Bello effectively appears torn between the man she knew and the stranger she's becoming acquainted with.

Screenwriter John Olson adapts A History of Violence from a graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke. I'm not familiar with the novel's insinuations, though Cronenberg clearly argues that violence inevitably finds us. Tom once sought it, so his cyclical return to the lifestyle and a face-to-face with his past (personified by a wired William Hurt) feels like a natural progression of events. A sadder turn lies with Jack, a pacifist character who avoids conflict with the school bully until reaching his own breaking point. It's one of many consequences in this thought-provoking drama that's content to reveal its puzzle pieces, even though they don't all snap firmly into place.

Review published 09.29.2005.

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