New Line // 2005 // 96 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // February 16th, 2009
Everyone has something to hide.
"I know that my husband is Tom Stall, that's what I know."
Tom Stall (Viggo Mortenson, Eastern Promises) is a quiet, humble man who runs a small-town restaurant. Tom has a wife (Maria Bello, The Cooler), a teenage son, and a young daughter. He loves his family dearly. One day, two strange men walk into Tom's restaurant and start causing trouble. Things take a violent turn, and suddenly Tom Stall turns into an action hero...a few quick camera cuts and loud noises later, the two men are lying dead on the restaurant floor, and innocent lives have been saved. The audience cheers, Tom's family cheers, and his neighbors cheer. Even so, Tom doesn't feel particularly proud about what he did; he'd rather not think about it. Soon, another group of men show up, led by a particularly creepy Ed Harris (The Rock). Who are these evil men, and why are they so convinced that Tom's real name is Joey Cusack?
David Cronenberg's A History of Violence has been described as many different things. Some have suggested that Cronenberg is simply offering a crowd-pleasing thriller, nothing more. Others see it as a nasty exploitation film. Some have called it a Hitchcockian mystery, and there are even some who consider it a savage political statement about America. We can argue all day about what A History of Violence is trying to be, but there are two things that I know for a certainty. First, your perception of the film will largely be determined by what you bring into it. Second, the film is a very thought-provoking examination of the nature of violence.
The violence in the film is almost another member of the cast. We follow the trail of violence as it slithers through the story like a deadly disease. We first see it during a harrowingly effective opening sequence with two hit men. The men take the violence into Tom's home town, where they are killed by Tom. Tom's act of violence attracts the attention of more violent men, and also affects the Stall family dynamic in a number of negative ways. The demons grow increasingly aggressive, the violence escalates, and everything culminates in a scene of cathartic exorcism. All of this is very disturbing, partially because Cronenberg brings such brutal savagery to the scenes of violence, and partially because Cronenberg subversively makes them as satisfactorily primal as anything in a Dirty Harry film.
The acting on display is simply superb. I'm of the opinion that this is Mortenson's finest performance. As we learn the secrets of the character's past, we watch Mortenson slowly transform from Tom Stall into Joey Cusack. Mortenson really does seem like a single body housing two different people, and the points where one stops and the other begins are essayed with razor-sharp precision. Maria Bello is as effective and nuanced as always, her reactions as complex as Mortenson's actions. She and Mortenson are particularly remarkable in two of the more impressive scenes of sexuality ever committed to film. The first almost feels like something out of an R-rated Frank Capra film, a sweet and tender slice of all-American lovemaking. The second is an angry and somewhat brutal sequence on hard staircase that seems fueled by a potent combination of lust and rage.
Ed Harris is one of cinema's most reliable actors, and he brings a genuine menace to his scenes. However, the real scene-stealer is William Hurt (Altered States), who plays host to the scene of catharsis I mentioned earlier. Hurt is one of my favorite actors, and he hasn't gotten quite enough great work in recent years. Here, he manages to do more with ten minutes than most actors can offer in an entire film. Hurt simply lights up the screen with a shocking blend of warmth, hatred, humor, and darkness. He brings an all ready tense movie to its boiling point, keeping things just barely on the edge.
A History of Violence is genuinely superb all around. Cronenberg provides bold yet assured direction, Josh Olson's screenplay is brimming with intelligence, the performances are sharp, the editing builds the tension masterfully, and longtime Cronenberg collaborator Howard Shore turns in an insinuating score. This top-drawer flick concludes with a very effective and thought-provoking ending that I admire to no end. The first time I saw the film in a theatre, half of the audience clapped and cheered before pouring out into the lobby. The other half (including myself) sat there quietly through the credits, pondering what they had scene. For some, the ending will simply be an ending to just another vigilante picture (albeit one with higher levels of violence and sexuality than usual). Personally, I don't think it's an ending at all, but rather a painful, fearful beginning.
The film is blessed with a very strong hi-def transfer. Blacks are nice and deep, and flesh tones are spot-on. Facial detail is quite solid throughout, and background detail is excellent as well. Perhaps a fair warning should be offered: the scenes of violence are made all the more disturbing in hi-def, as viewers are subjected to superbly-conveyed blood and guts. On the negative side, there's a bit of black crush here and there, and one scene in a bar during the final act somehow seems lackluster in contrast to the rest of the film. This is a surprisingly low-key audio track, even during some of the action scenes. Nothing here will shake your living room, but the track is well-distributed and reasonably immersive.
The extras have all been ported over from the DVD. It's disappointing that there isn't anything new, but take consolation in the fact that these extras are simply superb in every way. We begin with an audio commentary from David Cronenberg, who is better at such things than most. He offers an intelligent, engaging deconstruction of the film, and is absolutely essential listening for film buffs. "Acts of Violence" is a great making-of documentary that details every aspect of making the film. There's a little overlap with the commentary, but it's still worth watching. One deleted scene is incredibly bizarre, and was more or less shot just so it could be included as a deleted scene on the DVD. There's even a making-of featurette on making the deleted scene. Another brief featurette examines the differences between the U.S. and International versions of the film (the latter is slightly more violent), and finally we get some footage of the film's premiere from the Cannes film festival. All of this is great stuff.
The subplot involving the Tom's son attempting to defend himself from a bully probably worked well in the screenplay, but it's rather obvious and one-dimensional in the actual execution. It feels a bit too much like something out of one of those "the rich, elite kids from uptown competing against the scrappy local kids" pictures.
The lack of new extras is a slight disappointment, but the transfer is strong and the film itself is brilliant. A History of Violence is worth an upgrade.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Line
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 96 Minutes
Release Year: 2005
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scene