Last of the Monster Kids

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Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Director Report Card: David Cronenberg (2005)

17. A History of Violence

I remember, sometime in the early 2000s, being on some website that tracked all the movies based on comic books that were currently in development. Among never realized projects like a Lindsey Lohan-starring remake of  “Barbarella” and an adaptation of “Rust” was a little film called “A History of Violence.” I had never heard of the comic but was very surprised to see David Cronenberg listed as the director. When the film was released, it would become the most talked about Cronenberg movie in years, leading to the greatest critical acclaim the director had experienced in a very long time.

Tom Stall is a happy family man, with a beautiful wife and two children. He lives in small town Indiana and makes a decent living running a diner. This seemingly idyllic existence changes when two murderers enter the diner and begin threatening the customers. Tom leaps into action and quickly kills both men. The story is national news. Afterwards, strange men appear at Tom's diner, calling him “Joey Cusack” and claiming he's a gangster from Philadelphia. It soon becomes apparent that Tom is not who he says he is and that the past has come calling. The revelation may tear his family apart.

I've always thought of Cronenberg as a director with a decidedly Canadian sensibility. His movies do not feel like American films. With “A History of Violence,” the director is providing his own distinctive take on an all-American, idyllic, Norman Rockwell-like existence. The Stall family home or diner could easily be right out of Rockwell's famous paintings. Cronenberg presents a peaceful small town where people watch out for each other, the sheriff often checking in on Tom's family. The only thing that seems to stick out about the Stall's life is their kinky sex life. Edie can still slip into her high school cheerleader uniform, which leads to a night of acrobatic lovemaking with her husband. Which seems like an especially Cronenbergian take on the small town life.

Aside from that, “A History of Violence” does not seem like your typical Cronenberg movie. It's a slick thriller starring a big name actor, with no mutated bodies or evil corporation. However, fittingly beneath the surface, “A History of Violence” grapples with a big Cronenberg theme. The fluid nature of identity crops up again. Instead of being about two bodies sharing one soul, like in the Mantle twins in “Dead Ringers” or the two Joans in “Naked Lunch,” the film is about one man with two lives. Tom Stall repeatedly says that Joey Cusack is dead. In a sense, he's transformed from one person to another, a rather metaphorical take on a typically Cronenbergian metamorphosis.

As the title suggests, the film's primarily theme is the nature of violence. The title refers to not just Tom's personal history of violence but also to the human race's tendency to use violence to resolve problems. And that tendency, the film argues, is attractive. Tom's act of explosive violence makes him a local celebrity. He's regularly referred to as a “hero,” a title he resists. Business in the diner soars after two men are killed there. Edie is shaken by learning her husband used to be a psychotic mob thug. Yet, after this revelation, the two have rough, enthusiastic sex on the staircase of their house. As repulsive as violence can be, there is something undeniably compelling about it.

The violence, in some ways, even brings Tom closer to his teenage son, Jack. At school, Jack is being taunted by a bully, an easily threatened jock. After Stall kills the two men in the diner, Jack stands up to the bully, beating him in the school hallway. Father and son argue about his expulsion, causing Tom to strike Jack in a moment of frustration. The film seems to be asking if violence works, as a way to resolve conflict. It might, in some ways. Jack's bully certainly leaves him alone after he beats the shit out of him. Yet the consequences of violence are never easily escaped. Tom/Joey can only run from his chaotic past for so long and the cost of those actions will weigh on his family.

As I said, “A History of Violence” doesn't seem like a very Cronenbergian movie at first. Depending on how you look at it, the film could even be considered an action movie, a very unusual genre for the scientific director to approach. The director, however, brings his typically intense obsession with the insides and outs of the human body to the story. A bullet to the head blows ribbons of flesh out of a body, which then seizes in its own blood. The violence in the film often leaves people trembling and spasming. Bullets to the chest results in huge bursts of blood. A nose is brutally cracked, bone fragments pushed into the brain. Throats are stepped on, limbs are cracked, and flesh is penetrated. The film isn't full blown body horror but it definitely emphasizes the ways the human body can be twisted, broken, or destroyed.

“A History of Violence” stars Viggo Mortenson, shortly after the “Lord of the Rings” films were released. That series' billion dollar success turned Mortenson, a versatile character actor, into a genuine star. That box office clout, no doubt, helped the movie get made. Mortenson gives an intense performance. He's charming and believable as a family man in early scenes. Mortenson does not play Tom and Joey as two separate characters. He's a genuinely changed man, who loves his wife and kids. Yet the potential for incredible violence remains in him. When those moments come, Mortenson adopts a steely, distant gaze, snapping out like a cold and effective instrument.

Mortenson is obviously the star of the film but Maria Bello as Edie is undeniably the heart of the story's conflict. Bello does not have an easy job. Edie loves her husband. After discovering that he hasn't always been the person he presents himself to be, Edie still loves her husband. Bello never overdoes it when playing that conflict, allowing her character to live a double life of sorts too: As a woman who carries on a charade of believing her husband is a normal person and someone who knows the horrible truth.

Among the film's supporting cast, William Hurt received the most attention, even earning an Oscar nomination. This is despite Hurt only having six minutes of screen time. He plays Richie, Joey Cusack's brother and the leader of the Philly-based crime family. Hurt does make an impression, even if he's only on-screen for a short time. He does a good job of showing a brotherly love for Joey while also being a conniving villain. Ed Harris appears as Carl Fogarty, the “made man” that tracks Joey down. Harris, supporting a convincingly gnarly facial scar, is appropriately intimidating in the part. So is Stephen McHattie, who appears as one of the thugs in the dinner. More overlooked was Ashton Holmes as Jack, the Stall's teenage son. Holmes is actually really good, playing a teenager torn apart by the schism in his family.

After an explosively violent climax, “A History of Violence” concludes with a beguilingly ambiguous ending. Tom returns home, still carrying his wounds, and sees that the family has made a place for him at the dinner table. He sits across from his wife in silence, the two with tears in their eyes. It seems you can interpret the ending in two different ways. Either the Stall family will always be haunted by the reveal of Tom's past. Alternatively, the ending also suggest familial love is enough to forgive anything. It really depends on how you interpret that final shot. Which is a nice sign of a film with a lot of depth.

Cronenberg's direction uses color to indicate the two tonal halves of the story. The early scenes set in the Stall household have a warm, earthy tone to them, aiding the cozy and comforting feeling. The scenes devoted to the mob hitman, and the eventual climax set in the Cusack mansion, have a darker and hungrier coloration to them, illustrating the two worlds Tom Stall inhabits. Howard Shore's score walks hand in hand with this approach. The music has a sweeping, light-hearted tone that fits with the small town American setting. A darker undertone frequently builds through the music, also pointing towards the darkness that hides under the picturesque setting.

It's tempting to say “A History of Violence” was a huge turning point in Cronenberg's career, where he would truly leave his genre roots behind forever and focus on making more respectable, more mainstream films. The truth is twofold: That move away from blatant horror elements happened years earlier while, under the skin, “A History of Violence” is still very much within the Cronenberg tradition. However, the movie would gain a lot more positive attention than his last few films. It would even receive several Academy Award nominations, for its screenplay and William Hurt's supporting role. (A Best Director nod for Cronenberg remained elusive, though many believe he deserved it.) As a horror nerd, I want to dismiss the director's more mainstream work but the truth is “A History of Violence” is a fantastic film that proudly stands among the director's best work. [Grade: A]

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