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Violence’ a history lesson worth taking

Sean Sweany | Wednesday, October 5, 2005

How far would you go to protect your family? How far would you go to protect those you do not know? How far would you go to protect a deep, dark secret?

David Cronenberg’s “A History of Violence” is a gripping movie that tries to answer these questions and leaves many more in its wake.

Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen, “Lord of the Rings” trilogy) is a quiet family man who owns a small diner in small-town Indiana. He and his loving wife Edie (Maria Bello, “The Cooler”) have two children, Sarah (Heidi Hayes) and Jack (Ashton Holmes), and seem to be the quintessential American family.

But everything changes when two criminals barge into Tom’s diner at closing time and threaten Tom and the customers. In response, Tom kills the men so quickly and efficiently that he seems to be a trained soldier. The ensuing media frenzy brings plenty of attention to the humble family, but unwanted visitors in suits and dark sunglasses arrive, led by the heavily scarred Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris, “A Beautiful Mind,” “Apollo 13”). These strangers turn out to be Philadelphia mob men who think Tom is really a fellow mobster named Joey Cusack and want him to return with them. What follows is a bloody hunt for all involved to find out the truth about Tom’s past.

Director David Cronenberg (“Spider”, “The Fly”) does an excellent job of adapting the 1997 graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke to the big screen. Cronenberg is known for depicting extremely graphic violence, and “A History of Violence” is similarly explicit to his other work.

The opening scene of the film seems much like a Western because it consists of a single shot, following the two criminals, who will later try to rob Tom Stall, as they check out of a motel. The shot appears to be boring and pointless until the camera moves inside and finds the motel owners brutally murdered by the two men.

The rest of the movie follows the formula of carefully arranged drama scenes interrupted by brief, graphic violence.

At its heart, “A History of Violence” is a family drama in which violence estranges a father from his family, and he must make amends. Mortensen and Bello give excellent, believable performances as a husband and wife who passionately love each other despite – and throughout – the whole ordeal.

When the movie takes on the vein of an action film, viewers find out exactly how far Tom Stall will go to protect his family. Mortensen portrays his character as a capable hero, but the ease with which he kills causes viewers to consider Stall as treading a very fine line between good and evil.

One lesson to take away from this film is that violence can only beget more violence. Once Tom sets out on his vicious path of retribution, he seemingly cannot stop. Cronenberg makes a point not to stylize the violence, but to portray it in a simple, cold, visceral manner. The fact that none of the characters reacts strongly to this brutality speaks volumes about Cronenberg’s takes on the prevalence and acceptance of violence in the world today.

These themes of the film are what really make it worth watching. While Mortensen and Bello give strong performances and Ed Harris plays an unforgettable role as Carl Fogarty, many of the other supporting actors, especially the younger ones, leave something to be desired.

The movie is also quite short, only 96 minutes, so there are several plot holes, but the quick pace makes the violence more explosive for viewers.

Overall, however, the issues and questions Cronenberg’s “A History of Violence” raises make it well worth the price of admission.