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A History Of Violence

A History Of Violence

By Thomas Grieve • June 30th, 2013
Static Mass Rating: 4/5
New Line Cinema

Original release: September 23rd, 2005
Running time: 92 minutes

Director: David Cronenberg
Writers: John Wagner, Vince Locke, Josh Olson

Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, Ed Harris, William Hurt

A History Of Violence

A History Of Violence opens with two men loading their car outside a motel somewhere in Middle America. One, perhaps, in his late 40s, the other early 20s; both are scruffily dressed and mainly notable for the faint air of menace with which they carry themselves. Obviously in charge, the older man sends the younger inside to fill up a water bottle. As he enters the motel we see the receptionist, shot and dead, sprawled across the floor. Seemingly unperturbed, the man presses on, stopping to admire some postcards arranged on a stand mere feet from the body, before eventually arriving at the water dispenser. Bending down he hears a noise and a little girl appears in front of him. Pushing his index finger to his lips, he signals her to be quiet, before pulling out a gun and shooting her point blank.

All of this occurs in one unbroken shot that lasts for four minutes. Technically, it’s breathtaking. It also tells us everything we need to know about both the characters wild and unthinking attitude to violence as well as the horror with which director David Cronenberg regards it. A History Of Violence is full of these moments, moments that juxtapose the everyday violence of movies with visceral, unflinching images of real-world consequence. Be it the sprawled body and shooting of a child, a face torn apart by glass or a son mimicking the violent solutions of the father. Cronenberg shows us everything, both the physical and psychological toll of violence. In some regards the film is the antithesis of the popular, but troubling, piece of revenge pornography that was the Liam Neeson vehicle Taken. It’s certainly a reaction, or even a cinematic antidote, to films of that ilk.

Cinema and violence go hand in hand, always have done, always will do. The world of A History Of Violence is grounded in cinema, full of locations and scenarios that don’t quite belong to the real world. Our protagonist Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) appears to lead an idyllic life in a timeless vision of small town Americana. Still apparently very much in love with his wife, they plot trips to the drive-in. At work in his diner he serves coffee whilst trading anecdotes with the regulars. It’s all a little too perfect to be real.

A History Of Violence

Things come unstuck however when the two killers from the opening scene, who are now in need of cash, happen upon Tom Stall’s diner. The robbery fails when Stall disarms one of the men using a boiling pot of coffee, and then proceeds to shoot them both with their own guns. Cronenberg plays it with a quickness and brutality that shows us the efficient ruthlessness of real violence. It’s an attempt to de-glorify, or at least make us question, that enduring cinematic image of the Western vigilante hero. As the media attention is lavished upon Stall in the wake of his triumph, it drags up some unwanted attention from some threatening outsiders.

The film makes it quickly apparent that Tom isn’t exactly who he says he is. It’s common for a parent to support their child by telling them “You can be whoever you want to be!” Tom Stall, it turns out, has taken this advice to the extreme – having crafted himself an entirely new identity, from violent criminality to the American Dream. Cronenberg’s often been noted for his fascination with the body and deformation, most notably in his film The Fly in which Jeff Goldblum merges physically with the insect. Here he turns his fascination inwards, examining the nature of identity, and its seeming malleability.

We all act differently in the different roles we perform, whether it is as father/mother, son/daughter, husband/wife, bother/sister, friend, boss or employee. Our identity is multifaceted A History Of Violenceand cannot be entirely knowable by anybody outside of the individual. On the other side of the coin we cannot wholly define our own identities; we exist in relation to others and how they allow us to exist. As Stall’s moment of violence unlocks his history, we see how those from his past can redefine his carefully projected identity.

There’s great skill in the way Cronenberg wrangles these existential ideas and uses them to redefine characters relationships, with each other, but also with the viewer. Tom’s son finds a new side to himself as he mercilessly beats his school bully. His wife struggles with the redefinition of their marriage, the film’s dual sex scenes emphasizing a shift in dynamics from a sweet and nostalgic tenderness to a bruising lustfulness. The viewer faces a shift in dynamic he/she must reevaluate as the film moves its protagonist from one movie stock type to another.

The “history” of violence in the title speaks both to the character of Tom Stall but also to America and its culture, and by extension to that of most of the western world. Explicit violence is cheered on weekly in our multiplexes, and Cronenberg seems to urge caution here. Martin Scorcese famously said that cinemas are the churches of the 20th century – A History Of Violence suggests that maybe we should take a look at what it is we’re praying to.

A History Of Violence

Thomas Grieve

Thomas Grieve

Tom is a Cardiff University Philosophy graduate from sunny Manchester. He favours filmmakers with edge and ambition, ones unafraid to subvert and disturb the status quo. This means directors such as David Lynch, Paul Thomas Anderson, Stanley Kubrick, David Croenenberg and Terry Gilliam.

Usually found in front of a screen trying to catch up on an ever-expanding watch list he also occasionally finds time to write. He tweets once in a while too: @thomasgrieve .

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