RogerBW's Blog

A History of Violence (2005) 25 September 2022

2005 action, dir. David Cronenberg, Viggo Mortensen, William Hurt: IMDb / allmovie. The guy doesn't do that any more, only this one last time he does.

Well, yes, I get very scathing about films for which that's the basic plot. I was a violent guy, but now I live with my family. Oh no! My family is in danger! Now I must be a violent guy again. Sometimes that's compressed into the first few minutes, just so that we can be assured that the next two hours of violence are justified, no, really they are.

This is a film that uses that same old story and does it right.

I'll admit my main exposure to Cronenberg has been via Videodrome and eXistenZ, both of which I enjoyed; I expect him to get downright weird, and that doesn't happen here. But at the same time he has a fascination with the beauty of the insides of bodies, which here means that the camera lingers on the consequences of violence… but never in a bloodthirsty way. It's more: well, yes, here are these things. And you can't stuff them back inside. Now what are you going to do?

Because, while there certainly are violent sequences, the film is much less about giving harmless small-town diner owner Tom Stall a justification to go out and break people than it is about his reaction to having to dig up the personality that he went to some trouble to bury – and his family's reaction to learning about it. He got out of that life (and, in a moment of genius, we never see the precipitating incident that made that change happen, because it would inevitably seem clichéd, like Spielberg's girl in the red dress), and his wife and children know nothing about the guy he used to be.

And I'm dancing round the core point: this film is made by Mortensen's performance. He'd been working since the 1980s but had recently become famous in the Lord of the Rings series, and here he does a superb job of non-verbal acting. When Tom's diner is invaded by two murderous criminals, and (having tried everything to de-escalate) he gets into the fight… there's a moment, as he picks up a gun that one of them has dropped, in which I can see the conflict, the collision of knowing exactly how the gun should feel and not wanting to be that guy any more with having to do the thing and even now it does feel kind of good. Similarly his expression when he's survived the fight with Fogarty because his son picked up a dropped shotgun: on the one hand Tom knows exactly how the son feels having killed a man for the first time, but on the other he wants this to be part of the son's life even less than he wants it to be part of his.

Ed Harris does Evil Ed Harris very well, but it's a part he's played plenty of times before. And William Hurt is much more of a cliché than he really needed to be, but that may be the script's fault. On the other hand, Maria Bello, with her Faye Dunaway cheekbones and haunted look, does a fine job – particularly in a sex scene that for once isn't gratuitous, as Edie is both scared of this man that her husband seems to have become and at the same time a bit turned on, but not enough to stay.

This is a film that takes a tired old story and tells it well, and makes it about people. It's excellent.

If you want more of my witterings, you should listen to Ribbon of Memes.

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