[pullquote cite=”” type=”left, right”][amazon text=Amazon&template=carousel&chan=That Film Guy&asin=B001N4KBAG][/pullquote] David Cronenberg is a controversial director whose movies always look at the sinister and dark side of human nature, is probably best known for Scanners, The Fly and Crash. His work always investigates how humanity copes with changes to the social status quo and his lead characters are often outsiders within their own society. In 2005, he made his first feature film based on a graphic novel, by adapting John Wagner’s A History of Violence. This was the first time a Wagner novel had been adapted since Sylvester Stallone vehicle Judge Dredd in 1995.
Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) and wife Edie (Maria Bello) run a diner in Millbrook, Indiana. One night two men attempt to rob the diner and kill one of the employees, but Tom kills them both with ruthless efficiency. This leads to him becoming a local celebrity, but he is approached by Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris) who claims that his real name is Joey Cusack and he is a former member of the mafia in Philidelphia. Denying the claims, Tom finds his life turned upside down by Fogarty as his and his families life is put in danger.
Cronenberg is at his best when he shows the audience their own failings, while reassuring us that these failings are also our strengths. Mortensen’s character, with potentially a history of violence himself, is portrayed as ‘just a normal guy’ defending another person. However once doubt is cast in other people’s minds, Cronenberg is able to explore how mistrust and tension are a natural reaction. What A History of Violence lacks in intricate plot (it’s more of a simple fable) it more than makes up with character development and depth. Everyone has their own personal story arc, and their moments of interaction are almost as thrilling as the moments of action.
Mortensen’s performance is subtle and bears more than a passing resemblence to Jeff Goldblum’s in previous Cronenberg film The Fly. He is a man whose life is changed by violence sweeping into town and he begins to undergo a change in character, from mild-mannered diner owner, to efficient killer. It has all the trappings of a modern take on the Western formula, but just not set in the Old West. A stranger comes to town, suggesting that the protagonist’s life is a lie and the film then goes about revealing the truth. It’s a masterfully handled genre film from a man whose ideas are often more interesting than the films that discuss them.
As the title suggest A History of Violence is not a calm, relaxing film. Looking at humanities love of violence, while simultaneously providing suitably terrible consequences to ones actions make this a compelling, character-driven film. Condemned by some, it explores our relationship with violence and how, despite the illusion of a calm and collected species, violence is as ingrained in our psyche as much as the need to eat and propagate.