That term first came to my mind when, as a child, I’d try to say “stream of consciousness” and end up with “brainflow.” It seems to fit here.

Welcome to the ramblings of my mind. (For now, these ones revolve mostly around films.)

A History of Violence

Tuesday, July 31st, 2007 9:14 pm—Film

A History of Violence (Germany/USA 2005, Crime/Drama/Thriller), Writer: Josh Olson; Director: David Cronenberg

[Spoiler Alert: I give away a few plot points here, although none that aren’t revealed in about the first half of the film.]

My love affair with Viggo Mortensen began sometime between The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King and when I first saw A History of Violence. I noticed him in A Perfect Murder as Gwyneth Paltrow’s artistic, criminally inclined lover, and was impressed to learn that he’d done all of his character’s paintings for the film. I’d seen some of his other work, like GI Jane (he’s the only good thing about that movie). And it would have been impossible to miss him in the first two The Lord of the Rings movies; I can’t imagine a better Aragorn.

But I wasn’t hooked until I read an article about him in the theatre waiting to see The Return of the King. Mortensen is amazing. He’s a published poet and photographer (Perceval Press is his own publishing shingle) and speaks several languages. He has an intense work ethic that borders on obsessive, but it’s what makes him give 110% to everything he does. For years, he responded personally to every one of his fan letters. When he no longer had time for that, he had the integrity to cease and desist his fan mail account because he didn’t want someone else writing on his behalf. He wouldn’t accept the role of Aragorn without his son’s blessing because he didn’t want to be away from him for the eighteen-month shoot. He shuns Hollywood every chance he gets, and is utterly fearless about speaking his mind.

After learning that and more about Mortensen, I started renting some of his other films. Most notable among them is The Indian Runner, Sean Penn’s directorial debut, inspired by Bruce Springsteen’s song Highway Patrolman about two brothers on opposite sides of the law. Mortensen is incredible in this film. If you’re a fan of his, or of Penn’s, you should rent it today.

On top of my Viggo appreciation, I’m a David Cronenberg fan. Needless to say, I was pretty excited when I first heard about A History of Violence, and it has since become one of my favourite films.

The movie is based on a graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke. On the surface, the plot is quite simple. It tells the story of Tom Stall (Mortensen), a family man who runs the local diner in small-town Millbrook, Indiana. His life appears peaceful and “normal” until two thugs try to rob his diner at gunpoint. Tom snaps into action and violently comes to the rescue. When his heroic efforts garner the attention of mobsters from Philadelphia, his family and friends start to question who Tom really is—an upstanding man with solid values, or Joey Cusack, a former mobster and hitman.

But just beneath the simple plot lies a strong undercurrent and that for me is where the power of A History of Violence rests. It’s in the tension between what we present to the outside world and what really beats in our hearts. What Cronenberg presents to us initially, and what’s really going on.

The film’s opening shot lasts several minutes. The camera dollies along the side of a motel as Leland (Stephen McHattie) and Billy (Greg Bryk) leave the building and load up their car. Cronenberg’s decision to capture the action in one long take allows the tension to build. Everything is still. We hear crickets in the distance, the drawn out whine of electrical wires. The men amble slowly toward their car. Billy even stops to adjust a chair as he leaves the motel.

But you get the distinct impression that something isn’t right. When Leland returns from checking out, Billy asks him what took so long. “The maid gave me some trouble,” he responds. It isn’t until Leland tells Billy to go in and fill up their water bottle that we find out just what he meant. As Billy wanders into the lobby, he steps over two slain bodies to reach the water cooler.

The stillness with which Cronenberg captures the first deaths in the film is in stark contrast to the violent scenes that follow. It serves to show how easily violence comes to Leland and Billy. It’s second nature to them—or maybe even first. When Billy finds a young girl trembling in the motel doorway, he pulls out his gun, tells her “shhh,” and then, cool as a cucumber, shoots her point blank.

We cut from there to Tom’s daughter, Sarah (Heidi Hayes), waking screaming from a nightmare. The family comes running to comfort her, and Tom tells her that there’s no such thing as monsters.

But that may not be entirely true. After Tom shoots the men in his diner, you see the monster start to come to life again. You see Tom realize that it’s still inside him. He later tells his wife Edie (Maria Bello) that he spent three years in the desert killing Joey, killing the monster within. But it’s an impossible task. Violence is a part of him, just as are love and compassion.

This dichotomy is best evidenced in the film’s two sex scenes. In the first one, Edie and Tom steal away from the kids for a sweet, passionate evening that begins with Edie in her high school cheerleading outfit. They are tender, loving and intimate with one another. In the second one, Edie has recently learned about Tom’s past—about Joey. She lashes out at him, and he responds by grabbing her throat and slamming her against the wall. She tries to run up the stairs, but he pulls her back by the ankle. She struggles while he holds her down, but when he starts to back off Edie pulls him roughly back to her and they engage in hurried, violent sex on the stairs that leaves her back covered in bruises.

It’s important to note that this is not a rape scene. Edie is turned on by Joey, by her husband’s violent side. She wants him to take her on the stairs.

When it’s over, Tom and Edie lie still holding one another before she pushes him away. It’s an interesting moment. Amid all the chaos and Edie’s newfound doubts about whether she ever knew her husband, there is still love between them. The violence in Tom’s past doesn’t make him a different person; it’s simply another dimension to him.

In the DVD’s special features, Cronenberg says that the sex scenes weren’t in the original script and that he asked screenwriter Josh Olson to add them. That’s hard to imagine, because the film wouldn’t be the same without them. They are certainly two of the most memorable scenes in the movie, and are pivotal to the story. They beautifully contrast the different aspects of Tom’s personality, and make a strong point about Edie’s appreciation of, if not capacity for, violence.

Tom’s episode at the diner affects the family in other ways. Once it’s introduced, the violence starts to grow roots and spread. Tom’s son, Jack (Ashton Holmes), fights back against the high school bully and ends up putting him in the hospital. Tom tells him off: “In this family, we don’t solve our problems by hitting people.” “No,” Jack says, “in this family, we shoot them,” to which Tom responds by hitting him hard.

Unfortunately, the subplots involving the kids detract a bit from the film. The scenes with the high school students are weaker than the rest, and the two child actors (Hayes and the girl who dies in the opening sequence) aren’t as convincing as their adult counterparts, which is too bad because they play in some of the film’s pivotal moments.

But the movie’s pros far outweigh its cons. The fight scenes are extremely well-choreographed, although a little too graphic for me—I still look away during the goriest moments.

William Hurt is a fun addition. As Joey’s brother and lead mobster Richie Cusack, Hurt brings levity to the film with a hammy performance. He has one of the best lines, delivered when he and Joey finally reunite: “You always were a problem. When mom brought you home from the hospital, I tried to strangle you in your crib. I guess all kids do that.”

On the whole, A History of Violence is a powerful film that features some fine performances—from Mortensen and Bello in particular—and leaves you thinking after the credits roll. When Edie begins to realize that Tom is not who he says he is, she confronts him: “Tell me the truth. What are you?”

It’s a question for us all.

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