History of Violence, A (United States, 2005)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Note: Although this review does not contain explicit spoilers, careful reading may make it possible to discern plot points. Consider this a warning.

David Cronenberg, the director of such films as Dead Ringers and The Fly, has a reputation for being a little "out there." It may come as a surprise, therefore, to learn that his latest, A History of Violence, is almost mainstream in the way it tells a linear story and curtails freaky images. The movie, which is at its heart a meditation upon the meaning of identity, is not perfect. Although there's little wrong with the first two-thirds, A History of Violence slides onto a tangential path during its final act, and this misstep reduces the production's overall effectiveness. Nevertheless, there's a lot to admire here.

Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) is a model citizen, ideal father, and loving husband. His two children, Jack (Ashton Holmes) and Sarah (Heidi Hayes), trust him, and his wife, Edie (Maria Bello), adores him. The fun hasn't gone out of their marriage, as Edie proves when she dons a cheerleader outfit to seduce Tom. One evening, while Tom is working behind the counter at his diner, two thugs come in with rape and robbery on their minds. After a brief struggle, Tom gets the gun away from one of the robbers and uses it to dispatch both intruders. He is hailed as a hero, and there is blanket news coverage. And it's on TV that Carl Fogaty (Ed Harris) sees a familiar face. Based on the evidence of his eyes, the man who calls himself Tom Stall is actually Joey Cusack, an ex-killer from Philadelphia. So, with henchmen in tow, Carl heads for the town of Millbrook, Indiana.

Central to the film's success is the uncertainty about Tom's past. When confronted by Carl, he not only denies being Joey, but claims to have never been in Philadelphia. Neither the script nor Viggo Mortensen gives us a clue whether Tom and Joey are the same person, or whether Tom is the victim of an unfortunate coincidence. As the Stalls must deal with the new, dangerous presence in their life, they must grapple with questions of identity. What makes each of us who we are? Is it our face, or something deep within?

Cronenberg weaves a spell for over an hour, but he proves unable to sustain it for the entire running length. The need for a conventional resolution pulls him off course during the movie's final third. Some of the most interesting characters and relationships are taken off the screen to allow A History of Violence to move in a different direction. Since the screenplay is based on a graphic novel, I suspect that the filmmakers may have had little choice about the trajectory.

The children have their own mini-stories as well. Sarah is afraid of monsters in her closet, and is comforted by her father (who says there are no monsters) and brother (who asserts that monsters are afraid of the light). Meanwhile, Jack has problems with a school bully. At first, he backs down but, in the wake of his father's "heroic" actions at the diner, he decides that confrontation may be the better course of action. Has the wimp become an avenger? Once again, it comes back to a question of identity.

Mortensen finds the perfect pitch for Tom. In this performance, we see a good, simple man who cares about his family and community. But we also see hints of something else - a darker, more decisive personality. During the film's first hour, I changed my mind several times about whether Tom was Joey, and a lot of that had to do with the way Mortensen plays the role. Opposite him, Maria Bello is a firecracker, the kind of actress who draws the camera's attention. Not since The Cooler has she been given this juicy and demanding a part. And, as the villain, Ed Harris is nothing short of despicable.

A History of Violence can be seen as a thriller, but in many ways it works best during its quieter moments. As the title indicates, this is not a sedate art film. It contains moments of sharp, vicious mayhem and there is a body count. But the strength of the movie lies in its psychological complexity and depth. And, while I wasn't enthused about where A History of Violence takes the audience during its waning moments, it at least offers a sense of closure, and, in the final scene, hope. Left unresolved, however, is the perhaps unanswerable question about whether the nature and identity of a person are fixed or fluid.

History of Violence, A (United States, 2005)

Run Time: 1:35
U.S. Release Date: 2005-09-23
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Situations, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1