With the help of Netflix, I may be ready to begin compiling a list of my favorite films from the 2000s sometime in the next year or so. If I end up doing one, there’s no doubt in my mind that “A History of Violence” will be near the top of the list. Directed by David Cronenberg, the movie is not always comfortable to watch (but would you expect anything else from the man who brought us the exploding head in “Scanners?”), but it is never less than mesmerizing.
I thought the movie did a wonderful job of exploring a number of themes, including whether a man can truly escape his past, and whether a man can truly suppress the darkest elements of his nature. Tom Stall, the main character, (and right about now I should let readers know that I’m going to give away key plot elements, because you can’t really talk about the film without doing so), is a man who is trying to do both. What he appears to be to his wife, his children, and his community is different from who he really is – to a point. The question that the movie doesn’t entirely resolve (and that’s a good thing) is whether, once his past and his nature become known, he can still find a place in the life and the world that he has created for himself.
The movie establishes Stall as a good man forced to do awful things by first introducing two very bad men who do awful things. Those two men wander into Stall’s diner one evening, prepared to do more awful things, and in a burst of sudden violence that seems shocking to everyone who knows him, Stall is able to disarm and mortally wound both men. He becomes a hero, but in doing so attracts the attention of some other very bad men, men who believe and say that Stall is himself a very bad man who did very bad things, a long time ago.
And from that point on, there is really no way out for Stall (who we now know to be Joey Cusack) except to resort to the violence that he has tried so hard to purge from his life and his character. The harder he tries to avoid his dark side, the deeper he pulls his family into it with him. The choice he faces is not simple, but is very clear – it is only through embracing the dark recesses of his soul that he can escape from the trap he has created for himself. And even when he does that, there’s no guarantees.
The payoff comes in the film’s final scene, which shows Stall/Cusack returning home after he has exorcised his demons, through another brutal and shocking act of violence. There is not a single line of dialogue in the scene, but there is so much going on. The attempt to cleanse oneself after the purging, the tentative looks from one family member to another as Stall/Cusack comes into the house and moves toward the dinner table, and the final shot of man and wife looking into each other’s eyes. It’s a magnificent moment, and one of the great film scenes of our time.
Cronenberg does a wonderful job of framing the changes in Tom/Joey by emphasizing the two sex scenes with his wife. As I commented while we were watching, both scenes go about as far as a film can go without having an NC-17 rating slapped on it, but for very different reasons. The first scene, though I’d hardly call it innocent, falls somewhere between playful and downright kinky, and does a great job of establishing the relationship between Tom and his wife Edie. The second scene, which occurs after Edie learns about Joey, is shocking in its brutality. Whether it is a rape or not is probably less important than the sheer fact of its brutality. These are two people trying to hurt each other, very much.
The performances are uniformly outstanding, from Viggo Mortensen and Maria Bello as Tom and Edie Stall to Ed Harris as the deranged mobster (with an assist from the makeup department), and William Hurt as a mob boss (more about whom I won’t say) in a great role that makes me sad we don’t see Hurt more often.
Though not for everyone, I have no hesitation in calling “A History of Violence” a great movie.