Superhero Movie Month: "A History of Violence" Review

Photo Credit: New Line Cinema

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Rating: R
Length: 96 minutes
Release Date: September 30, 2005
Directed by: David Cronenberg
Genre: Crime / Drama / Thriller

One reason why people go to see violent movies is the ability to experience the explosions and the brutality vicariously, without having to pay a price themselves. Audiences who go to see David Cronenberg's thriller "A History of Violence," though, are unable to escape the pain that comes from simply experiencing the tragic horrors in the film. By setting the story in a town that could be anywhere in the United States and having that town experience suffering over and over again, Cronenberg implies that the viewer could live in just such a place.

Not to worry, though - Cronenberg also wants the audience to enjoy the experience for which it likely paid at least $10 for a stadium seating experience, and it is the whipsaw between suffering and vicarious pleasure that makes the film so successful. Mysterious figure Tom Stall, played by Viggo Mortensen, who is at once both an upstanding denizen of the town and a shadowy figure is the audience's beacon as the plot gets underway. Even for those in the audience who have desensitized themselves to the mass exhibitions of gore that such films as "300" put on display or to the presentation of individual death as appears in "Road to Perdition," "A History of Violence" definitely amps up the presentation.

"A History of Violence" draws inspiration from John Wagner and Vince Locke's graphic novel that came out in 1987, and the story opens with a pair of men coming out of a hotel room. One has on jeans and a T-shirt; the other is wearing a black suit. The sun is out, showing the light of early morning, but these two men have clearly been at work for a while. After checking out, the men have one murder to commit, and it is this first homicide that sets the disturbing tone for the film. It's not enough for the death to happen, though. This motel office has turned into a noir vision. Its brutality is so unnecessary that it is clear that the killing itself has become a form of entertainment. True, things start to play out like some of the episodes inside Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction," but this movie gets more and more eerie and nasty. One of the main causes is the constant interplay of moods. Cronenberg is pulling the switches behind the screen with less emotional involvement and, as a result, more success than even Jigsaw was able to experience when putting together his house of horrors in the "Saw" series.

The bad guys end up getting their comeuppance – after all, this is Hollywood – and their justice comes at the hands of Tom Stall. He is a happily married man with a gorgeous wife, Edie (Maria Bello), a blond pistol of a daughter, Sarah (Heidi Hayes), and a teenage son, Jack (Ashton Holmes). Tom is the proprietor of a diner that one might have seen in such Americana as the paintings of Norman Rockwell or Edward Hopper. The town where the Stalls live is as sleepy as they come, with the buildings looking more like an abandoned set than an actual municipality. Every adult in town knows everyone else, and Walmart has not yet been able to suck the life blood out of the downtown. Instead, small businesses still dot the main street of the city, and the pharmacy even serves ice cream sodas. Whether one compares this to the naive town in "Pleasantville" or the model town that is set up for nuclear annihilation in "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" depends on how much attention one is paying to the ominous signs that Cronenberg is erecting for the viewer to see. There might not be any hobos in town, and there might not be any vandalism, but something is amiss.

When the bad guys enter Stall's diner, the sign promising them "friendly service" ends up being an ironic twist. The scene that ends up killing both of them is both visceral in its imagery, with the camera focusing almost too long on one villain's face, ripped off of its head. The choreography is just for the first celebration for Mr. Stall, who ends up being honored as a hero. Both the media and some more bad men descend on the town, showing that the mayhem is far from finished.

As with such stories as "The Black Dahlia" and "L.A. Confidential," "A History of Violence" is an exploration of the mythos of America through its compulsions and its dreams. It is also a highly sensual tableau of what screen violence can do to the pulse of the audience, a clear sign that the connection between brutal death and primal pleasure is much, much closer than one would like to believe.