Comic Book Movie July – A History of Violence

A History of Violence. Think about that. Such a simple title, yet it conveys so much meaning. It sounds eloquent, yet brutal – and that may also sum up the film A History of Violence. It’s brutal. It’s bloody. It’s archaic. And it’s brilliant. In many movies today, violence has become gratuitous, has become a means without an end (Seen any Tarantino lately?). But A History of Violence is different. Sure, it more than deserves it’s R rating or being restricted to adults in Germany. But underneath that, there is so much more – an enthralling thriller as well as a heartfelt plea for family and small-town life.

David Cronenberg is mostly known for his horror work. In recent years, however, he has moved onto quite different fare, though all his movies have a certain horrific element. A History of Violence opens simple enough, with two men leaving their room in a motel somewhere in the middle of nowhere, but it isn’t long before we know that they are thugs that not only killed the manager and maid, but didn’t hesitate to kill a little girl. And even though the film takes a sharp turn after that, those images linger, making the viewer feel uncomfortable and weary of what will happen.

Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen of Lord of the Rings fame) is a decent guy. He lives with his wife and their two children in a small house outside a small town, owns a small diner and tries his best to be a good husband and father. When his young daughter wakes from a nightmare, everybody comes to comfort her – her father, her mother (Maria Bello) and her older brother (Ashton Holmes). When his son is being bullied in school, he tries to act smart and doesn’t get violent. When a customer of Stall’s Diner leaves, he is sure to come again. Every scene shows perfectly the kind of small town idyll that the family has constructed for itself. Cronenberg takes time to show these things, to show the normal life of this family, before everything takes an unpredictable and unnerving turn.

The two thugs we’ve seen before come to Stall’s Diner – and when they try to rob it (and cause general mayhem with guns and plans of rape), Tom takes them out. I know the last sentence sounds horribly clichéd, but there is no other way to put it. He kills them. Like he has never done anything else in his life. Of course, this garners him a lot of media attention – attention he doesn’t really want. He refuses to be seen as a hero, claiming that he just did what everyone would do. Of course, people disagree. Especially some guys who turn out to be from Philadelphia – and organized crime. They say that they know Tom, call him Joey Cusack and want to take him back. He claims it is all a misunderstanding – and for a while, everyone believes him. But of course everything eventually escalates and Joey has to return once more to take care of business, before hoping to be a normal husband and father called Tom again.

A History of Violence (as has been mentioned several times already) is messy. It is bloody. It is not fun to watch. It is an incredibly intense experience because the film actually manages to stay on the thin line between embracing its violent nature and condemning it. The violence is never fun like in most contemporary action films or suggested as a solution. Tom actually tells his son that “we don’t solve our problems in this family with violence” after the son has finally taken revenge on the bully and fought back. But what kind of a role model can a father be that is a serial killer – even if the murders the son knows about were in self-defence? This is precisely the question that is at the core of A History of Violence. And it remains largely unanswered, because, really, who could answer a question like that? Maybe the love a father feels for his children is enough. Maybe it isn’t. The story never claims to know the answer, yet it brings a deep insight into the problem. The final scene of the movie (if you haven’t seen the film and want to, you should probably skip to the next paragraph before everything is given away) shows this perfectly. Tom returns from “taking care of business”. His family is sitting at the dinner table. Nobody talks. But his little daughter sets the place for him and his son hands him the meatloaf. In a film punctuated by powerful and excruciating scenes, this is the most powerful and excruciating of them all.

The story is based, loosely I’m led to believe, on a graphic novel. But apparently the plot was changed so much that the film has little resemblance to it. And considering how interesting the story is, that was probably a good thing. I wasn’t even aware that the movie was based on a comic book until I started the research for this theme month – and apparently I wasn’t the only one blissfully unaware. Several of the people involved with the film have stated the same – maybe because Cronenberg made it truly his. For this is the other great thing apart from the story – it is extremely well told and expertly handled. There isn’t a single scene that doesn’t accomplish what it should. There isn’t a single music cue that seems amiss. The last line of the movie is spoken a few minutes before the actual end of the film – and it doesn’t seem strange. (I think I’m falling in love with this film as I write this. Sorry.) And most surprising – the actors all outperform themselves. Viggo Mortensen’s performance is tremendous. One actually believes that there are two personalities inside him. Considering that in Lord of the Rings he mostly looked like he was high on something, this is simply amazing. And the supporting cast is great. Especially Ashton Holmes deserves to be mentioned, as well as William Hurt, who’s on screen only briefly, yet manages to steal that scene.

It’s films like A History of Violence that intrigued me when setting out to write about comic book movies. As well as the next to entries, V for Vendetta and Sin City, it is a movie I really, really like. Thus, my review may sound a little too much like glowing praise. But stories like this one are so unusual that they deserve to be told – both in graphic novel form and on screen. I’m sure that many people won’t agree with my overall assessment. But nobody can deny that A History of Violence is truly unusual, maybe even unique. And this is really what I set out to write about. So expect more glowing praise in the next two reviews. I’m sure 300 will get me back down to earth. Until then, enjoy my obvious enjoyment.

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