A History of Violence: the phrase can be taken two ways, both as something a person – a criminal in the dock – might have, and as a description of the film itself (Violence: A History), a vision of how violence leads to violence and the depredations it brings.
It is David Cronenberg’s most mainstream work since The Fly (1986). He has made some of the strangest, most confrontational films of the last twenty-five years, their sleek, austere style at odds with their near-psychotic content. The twin gynaecologists in Dead Ringers (1988), both in love with the same woman, whose trifurcated womb triggers a series of increasingly misogynist fantasies (“These women are mutants”); the subculture of car-crash victims in Crash (1996), which fetishes scars, metal and ripped upholstery; the early body-horror Guignols, with their exploding heads; James Woods’s vaginal stomach-slot in Videodrome (1983); the schizophrenia of Spider (2002): Cronenberg’s films are worlds of perversity, physical outrage, infection and double identities.
A History of Violence is a departure for Cronenberg. Neither horror nor science fiction nor a literary adaptation, it’s a noir-ish gangster film, though he has managed to integrate some of his most abiding obsessions into its B-movie architecture. Cronenberg apparently took the project on because he wanted a commercial hit after his reduced salary for Spider, an accomplished yet arid and uninviting film, but it’s by no means hackwork. It’s also by no means the unqualified success that reviewers have made it out to be (it topped Film Comment’s critics’ poll for the best film of last year).
It’s not a film to discuss in terms of plot; part of its appeal is its lingering sense of dread and dislocation, and the red herrings it dangles in front of the audience. Cronenberg skilfully plays with genre expectations, and confounds them. It was a curious experience watching it at a multiplex on Labour Day: the majority of the audience members were under 25 and were obviously expecting something very different from a movie with guns and Viggo Mortensen. The mood at the end was hostile.
The premise, at any rate, is this: Tom Stall (Mortensen) runs a diner in a small town, the kind of place where people say goodbye by saying “See you in church”; his wife Edie (Mario Bello) is a lawyer; his teenage son Jack (Ashton Holmes) is bullied at school. One evening two thugs, whom we have already met in the frightening and coolly shot opening scene, try to hold up the diner. Tom fights back, killing them both, and is the hero of the moment. His face is all over the news, drawing the attention of a second group of crims, big-time bad men from Philadelphia led by Carl Fogerty (Ed Harris), who claims Tom is someone else, someone who is really good at killing people.
The bizarreness and mind-games of Cronenberg’s film-making can often distract us from one of his more traditional virtues, which is that he can get very good performances from actors. Jeremy Irons was at his best in Dead Ringers, and Viggo Mortensen puts in a remarkably precise, credible performance here as the self-divided Tom. He uses his exaggerated masculine looks to suggest both menace and kindness.
There are curious glints of parody. An early scene with Tom and his wife gathered around their little girl looked to me like a caricature of Spielberg gemütlichkeit; either that, or Cronenberg is so used to dealing entirely in perverse bonds that the task of representing a cuddly moment is beyond him. The film also has its share of obvious bloopers. There is a scene where Tom rings Edie at home to tell her Fogerty and his cronies are on their way, and she panics, gets the shotgun out and trains it on the front door. Cronenberg cuts to Jack sitting in the next room, looking up from his cornflakes as if entirely unaware of all that has gone on.
The script is otherwise tight and tightly patterned: even if you are making a noir art-movie you probably need some realistic foundations. Yet Cronenberg isn’t interested in realism, and the lack of complexity in the exposition works both in favour of A History of Violence and against it. It keeps things crisp and stripped back: the film is only 95 minutes long, and not a moment is wasted. At that level it has much in common with classic ’50s B-shockers such as Ida Lupino’s The Hitchhiker or Sam Fuller’s Pickup on South Street – working with limited budgets, those directors knew how to make every shot and line pull its weight. But the limited exposition also runs the risk of losing the audience. We’ve seen a zillion cop–gangster movies, so you find yourself distracted by plot-pedant questions: if all these gangsters are turning up and getting killed in this little town, where is the FBI?
A History of Violence is a deeply ascetic piece of film-making, borrowing a form that relies on thrills and on the catharsis of action to make darkness visible. It’s postmodern in the sense that it knowingly plays with genre, but its abstractions and games don’t produce Tarantino-like chic, or the meta-noir of movies like Sin City or Red Rock West. Despite the occasional moments of black humour it’s a horror movie, but the horror has moved inward, into the mind and the heart.
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