We can all aspire to be peaceful, encourage one another to avoid physical conflicts and chastise those who promote war. But let’s look at the past, shall we. Most countries are embroiled in some sort of government supported war, blood and gore are all over television and on the movie screens and the news is filled with stories of brawls, assaults and murder. Heck, elementary school offices are busy with children getting in petty playground wrestling matches. Whether you want to admit it or not, we live in a violent society that is unlikely to change any time soon. David Cronenberg, normally a master of creature commentaries, unveils one of his most gruesome monsters yet – humans – in A History of Violence, a grim exploration of our futile attempts to repress the urge for violence.
Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) is a wholesome, small-town guy. Well-liked in his sleepy town, Tom has a beautiful wife (Maria Bello), two children (Ashton Holmes, Heidi Hayes) and a popular diner where he serves coffee and small talk to his customers. It’s a peaceful existence – the kind of white-picket lifestyle that brings to mind pie, baseball and the American Dream.
But the dream has a past. Tom is called to action when his diner and its employees are put in danger by a couple of thugs. Tom shows his trained hand in taking care of the situation and the thugs with a knife and a couple of bullets. This brings the media knocking and more gangsters to Indiana.
The media wants the story of the hero – the good guy who did great saving innocent people and sticking up for his small business. Like a utopian hero, Tom wants nothing to do with them. He’s a humble person with a servant heart. He pretends to want nothing to do with the dark side of humanity and just wants to get back to loving his family and pouring coffee.
Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris) represents the darker side of humanity. They’re from the world of Philadelphia’s organized crime and are out looking for a guy named Joey. Seems Joey was an up-and-coming gangster some years ago who skipped town, pissing a lot of people off in the process. This Joey fellow has an uncanny resemblance to Tom so Carl wants to pull him aside to take care of some unfinished business. Tom does the best he can to avoid the dark advances, but you can only where a mask for so long before you have to take it off and breath.
Based on the gritty graphic novel by John Wagner, A History of Violence digs deeper than simply being about a man defending his livelihood. It chronicles the cycle of violence that thus far has been tough to break. On a personal level, Tom’s involvement appears to be at risk of continuing with his teenage son. Bullied at school, he goes down a similar road to his father. The media fascination takes the cycle public and makes it bigger. So although the affair began largely as a private one, it was spread through print and over the airwaves, thus making it everyone’s business. And because there was a fairly large degree of fascination, enough to warrant the front page and coverage over multiple days, it makes the public somewhat guilty of falling into the violence as well.
Despite its subject matter, A History of Violence is a quiet film. Well, for the most part. Cronenberg is concerned with the exploring the human consequences of violence rather than violence itself. Guns and gangsters aside, the real conflict is an internal one. Which way is Tom going to go? Is he going to ignore the call to fight and go on being Tom Stall, diner owner? Or will he buckle and revert back to his origins.
As subtle as a film about violence can be, A History of Violence looks at the monster within. It is a thoughtful film that will hopefully make its audience think about where it stands on violence, not so much publicly but in their heart.
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