There is a sleaziness attached to David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence. It could be the gratuitous violence, the forced sex scenes or the unrealistic family scenario-or maybe it’s not the sleaziness, but the puzzlement that a director, as eclectic and consistently interesting as Cronenberg, could have waited all this time to finally make a mainstream film and have it be this bad.
A History of Violence takes place in a small Indiana town. Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) is family man who runs a quiet diner in an even quieter town. He has a picture-perfect family that adores him. Everything seems ideal until his diner is held up by two “bad men” who seem more interested in the execution of a robbery than the actual payoff. It doesn’t take long for Tom to react and take out both of the men when the waitress is threatened. Tom is called a hero and given the front page of every newspaper and top story of every news channel. Shortly after the incident, Tom gets a visit from some men looking for a man named Joey, whom they have seemed to mistaken for Tom. It’s not hard to place the men as gangsters. The real question that remains is whether Tom is who he appears to be or something more.
The question isn’t really as intriguing as the previews let on to believe. The film doesn’t offer any surprises or revelations. It’s more or less a study of brutality and masked identities.
The violence in A History of Violence is gruesome and often unnerving, which would be fine if there was a point to it. There are scenes of choreographed violence that are more sadistic than needed. At times, Cronenberg will show us a close-up of a victim on the ground after his nose has been smashed into his head or his neck stomped to pieces. There is no need for these close-ups except to linger on violence much like a child would linger on the carcass of a dead squirrel on the road. Never does it seem like Cronenberg is shaming this violence; in fact, it feels like he’s glorifying it. The action scenes are filmed with a certain energy and humor that feels out of place in a film that is supposed to be making serious claims about a violent-natured society.
The sex scenes are another interesting debacle. Just from the way they interact with each other, the audience can make the assumption that they have a healthy sex life, but seeing the couple’s kinky fantasies played out on film seems unnecessary. So why are 10 minutes that could have been used to further the story wasted watching this couple go at it?
Besides the superfluous violence and sex, the main hitch that throws off A History of Violence is the lack of realism. There are complications at school with Tom’s son and a bully. These circumstances never feel the least bit realistic; instead they feel staged to the point of being laughable.
Tom’s family’s reactions to his violence are another issue. Without giving too much away (just from the previews, we know Tom kills several robbers in his diner), there are scenes right after that killing that make a joke out of this movie. The way this family reacts to Tom murdering these two men is deplorably improbable; when a father or husband kills two men and is nearly killed himself, wives and children do not usually act as calm as these individuals do.
This movie would have been a lot better if it had taken itself more seriously and was more realistic about the situation. The acting, with the exception of the two children, is fairly good, especially from Mortensen and Hurt. It’s the circumstances in this film that are incredibly impractical and the moments of gruesome violence with disgustingly humorous undertones that overthrow the film’s intentions, if there were any to begin with.
Danny Gordon can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.