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A History of Violence (2005)
Directed by: David Cronenberg
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, Ed Harris, Ashton Holmes, William Hurt
Rated: R for Strong Brutal Violence, Graphic Sexuality, Nudity, Language and Some Drug Use
Running Time: 1h 36m
TMM Score: 4 Stars
STRENGTHS: Performances, Subversive Writing, Direction
WEAKNESSES: First Act
Tom Stall had the perfect life, until he became a hero.
David Cronenberg is one of the most versatile directors working in the business today. From his gross out body horror masterpiece “The Fly”, to the crazy science fiction thriller “eXistenZ” to the intense pschyodrama of “A Dangerous Method”, Cronenberg continuously keeps his movies fresh and exciting as he further expands his eclectic filmography. “A History of Violence” is no exception. This time, David Cronenberg crafts a deeply personal crime thriller, following everyman Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen, “Green Book”), whose past comes back to haunt him after he protects the diner he owns from two mobsters causing trouble. Tom is a family man. He has a wife (Maria Bello, “Lights Out”) and two kids, whom he cares very deeply for. After the incident at the diner, revelations start to take place, and Tom will do anything he can to protect them.
This movie does a brilliant job at subverting the viewers expectations. There are twists around every corner, and Cronenberg's signature blend of atmosphere and jarring violence is there at every turn. He's already established himself as an auteur, and his films are always recognizable, he has a flare to his films that have inspired many new filmmakers. The opening shot, which is a full 5 minutes without cutting, sets the tone for the entire film: it's gonna be a dark, violent ride. But after that opening shot, the movie halts sharply and abruptly, Josh Olson's (who received multiple nominations for this) script is a bit on the jumbled side, establishing the Stall family is an endurance test for the first 20 minutes or so; it's quite deliberate in it's execution, and in the beginning it feels forced, especially the dialogue which is clunky and overdramatic. The first act is almost a soap opera, and the sex scene is unnecessarily long. After that though, once the diner scene happens the film takes another genre turn, and the intensity never lets up. The second and third acts are seamlessly written, it almost asks if the first act was intentionally written like a soap opera. There are simple lines like "we handle it" that get paid off later in the narrative, the set ups and pay offs are frequent and always satisfying. The moments of carnage is when this movie really pops, such as the ultra violent front lawn scene that sets up the events of the final act.
The message of the story is still as strong as it was back in 2005, as the title would suggest it's about being a violent person and if that's something that is learned or inherited. Tom Stall is a man of many secrets, most of them violent. He keeps his secrets hidden for as long as possible, but eventually the past always catches up. The juxtaposition between Tom and his son, Jack (Ashton Holmes) is the real crux of Tom's story arch. It asks, does trying to be a good person resonate to offspring, can you teach one to not follow the sins of the father, or is violence just a natural trait of this family? When the answers surface and truths are revealed, and family members are confronted, the end result is absolutely violent. It takes a master to truly create such a dense, epic and important movie in just ninety minutes, which Cronenberg of course does. He's an expert. But I do feel this story would have done well with twenty more minutes, letting some of the scenes flesh out a little bit more. Some of it does feel rushed, as if it's on a time limit to reach the end. It would have benefited with just a tad more narrative. And then two years after this film, Cronenberg perfected the crime drama with “Eastern Promises”, and, I believe, this film truly helped him hone and perfect his craft.
Viggo Mortensen will never disappoint me as an actor or as a person. He's transformative in whatever role he takes, he has an immense heart for his fellow cast and crew members, and his passion for his art is undeniably inspiring. I wouldn't say this is his most difficult part to play, but he still gives it 110%, and he convinces the viewer that the drama unfolding is real. When Carl Fogerty (Ed Harris, “The Rock”) and Tom are together, the chemistry is cold and anxietal. The intensity both these actors bring is nothing short of stellar. William Hurt (“A.I.”) even makes a brief appearance as Tom's brother (it even got him an Oscar Nomination), bringing to light the violent past of their family, and the confrontation between the two could not have been staged or filmed more perfectly, it's a chaotic blood soaked finale, bringing everything from the previous acts of the film to a cathartic conclusion, anything that was set up is now paid off, and one of my favorite things about Cronenberg is he never drags out his endings, when the story is finished and the everything has been paid off, he let's the credits roll.
A History of Violence is an underrated gem, one that was mildly successful thanks to the built in fan base due to the source material (it's based on the graphic novel of the same name), but it definitely deserved more attention at the time of its release. The message is an important one, one that many people are afraid to ask themselves; are we naturally violent people? So to watch Tom Stall battle this, it feels all too real with the world around us today, and Cronenberg really nails it with this interpretation. The performances are top notch, everyone brings all their cards to the table, and with such a prolific director behind the camera, who wouldn't want to give it their all. The writing is a bit odd, especially in the first act, besides the opening scene the first twenty minutes are just too melodramatic with clunky dialogue, it takes a few minutes for this to take off, but it's such a brisk runtime it's easy to forgive, because when the violence starts, it never stops. At it's core it's a family drama of survival, and finding out who their father truly is, all the questions are answered in satisfying ways, David Cronenberg never let's up on the intensity during the second and third acts, which almost forgives the stale first act. The film would have benefited from a longer script, as some moments are a tad rushed, it would've been nice to spend a little longer with the characters. But that being said overall, “A History of Violence” is above par entertainment, and despite it's flaws it's an important piece of filmmaking, one that only further improved the director's already impressive career.
I give “A History of Violence” 4 stars out of 5.
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