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Review: A History of Violence

October 26th, 2005 · No Comments · Art, Movies

My review originally written for another site:

If there aren’t MULTIPLE Academy Award nominations drawn from this film, I’ll be very, very surprised. The direction is tremendous, the acting is top-notch (especially from the supporting cast) and the story works on multiple levels with grace and ease. When Viggo Mortensen says it’s the best film he’s worked on, he isn’t bullshitting.

(Cut for spoilers)

Now, I have to admit something:

I am basically a full-blown fan of everything related to this film. I love the director, I love the cast, I love the comic it’s based on. When I heard Cronenberg had been tapped to direct, I started trying to imagine what the director of Scanners and The Fly and (the wildly underrated) eXistenZ was going to do with various elements from the original comic (people familiar with the source material will know what I’m talking about). I can honestly say, I was wrong, pretty much across the board.

Watching the film, it’s easy to completely forget that you’re even watching a Cronenberg film within the first half hour or so. The shots he chooses and the way he introduces us to the environment and the characters and what SEEMS to be the underlying plot are disarming. It feels more like Field of Dreams than the sort of gritty, gruesome excavations of the human psyche that Cronenberg is famous for. As someone who was familiar with the source material, this was somewhat surprising. If you haven’t read the comics, it’s important to note that there are quite a few “Cronenbergesque” moments that - to his credit - the director simply chose to either not use or to replace entirely.

In fact, the story presented in the film is only loosely similar to the comic. The basic elements are all there, but the execution and the MESSAGES from the film are vastly superior in every way. It’s easy to misread the way the film progresses as simply being a “mushy” film where we see “good guys” struggling to beat “bad guys” in a quirky scenario, but that interpretation is totally off the mark.

Some people want to see this as a “redemption” story, where a man’s wicked deeds are finally washed clean by his selfless and heroic acts. This is - quite simply - wrong.

“Joey” never died and “Tom” is never redeemed and the message of the film is that this is a very, VERY good thing. Yes, it’s difficult for his wife and family to cope with the sudden and shocking truth, but they (and we) come to realize something very interesting - if Tom Stall HADN’T been a skilled and brutal killer, he and untold other innocent people would be dead or worse. The only thing that saves him, his customers and his employees is the fact that he is - as a simple matter of biology - an excellent warrior. He clearly doesn’t WANT to be, but there’s no fighting what nature gives you. Later on, we see that this “genetic gift” carries over to his son who clearly shares much of his father’s seeming tendency towards passive, non-confrontational behavior but who is capable of exceptional and extremely effective acts of violence when pushed beyond a certain point.

The end of the film represents a quiet recognition of this fact. The family realizes that they are better off with a “Tom” who has Joey’s past than they would have been with a “Tom” with Tom’s (supposed) past.

This lesson is darkly and subtley subversive. The Darwinian undertones (which Cronenberg readily admits are quite deliberate) make the traditional “man pushed too far” narrative seem fresh and interesting. It suggests that there is - contrary to normal, “feel-good” tales of heroism - something that most of us lack that makes displays of sudden, decisive and ferocious action impossible.

In the end, this film forces its audience to ask the uncomfortable question:

Given the choice between being able to protect the things that matter most to you and being “good,” what would you choose?

Pros: Unbelievably good in basically every way. A tremendous, powerful and compelling story, wonderfully acted, powerfully directed with beautiful sets and scenery. Even the score is excellent - stark, punctuating and effective.

Cons: Some people just won’t get it.



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