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A History of Violence (2005)

by on 2012/04/20

“Tell me the truth. You can do that can’t you?”

* * * * *

I’m no fan of “entertainment” depicting the murder of children, particularly when the victims are aware and scared. It may be a horrific reality, but I nonetheless resent its too-common exploitation in pop culture.

Which makes my appreciation — and even affection — for A History of Violence especially surprising, as much to myself as anybody else.

I’d seen the movie at least once before, but remembered little of it. Still, I knew how highly Grushenka regarded it, though early in the running time, I wondered what she saw in it. I was somewhat repulsed by the opening scene, and those shortly after rang false.

I reminded myself about eXistenZ, another David Cronenberg gem, and found a key to continue: if this director permitted such saccharine interactions, he surely had a reason, perhaps to contrast with the events yet to unfold. So I continued.

In the town of Millbrook, Indiana, local proprietor Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen of Lord of the Rings) is forced to defend himself against a couple of low-rent thugs (one of them Stephen McHattie, apparently channelling Lance Henriksen). He thus becomes a minor celebrity. The exposure attracts the attention of more powerful criminals. They’re convinced he resembles a long-lost, but wanted, traitor.

As he desperately tries to dissuade the aggressors, Stall’s loved ones are shaken, at first by dread and, eventually, suspicion. If the mobsters don’t get them in the end, then the sown dysfunction might. In brief but brilliant “bad guy” roles, we find Ed Harris (The Abyss) and William Hurt (Dark City). As Tom’s family, the feature benefits immensely from the presence of three actors who could otherwise have proven unremarkable: Maria Bello (2005‘s Assault on Precinct 13), Heidi Hayes, and Ashton Holmes.

As mentioned before, I was initially left cold by the earliest scenes, one where everyone gathers to comfort Hayes’ Sarah in the wake of a nightmare, and another where Bello’s Edie role-plays as a cheerleader. To put it kindly, neither of them endeared themselves to me. The former appeared too stagey, and the second utterly cringe-worthy, the absolute antithesis of alluring.

However, I’ve since come to believe they were deliberately sickly sweet, a cliche of small-town values, nice and naughty alike. If I had any doubt these players were capable of conveying other tones, their later performances would help dispel that myth. Bello combines fear, anger, and lust in a truly astonishing arc. Holmes, as her son, is just as conflicted with teenage angst and frustration. And Hayes’ pervasive obliviousness becomes poignant in the right context.

The turning points for my support came at four distinct moments, two of them adrenalizing, and two more personal. When Fogarty (Harris) visits first Tom’s diner and then his home, I realized I was ready for any outcome, which is pretty amazing suspension, especially on this viewer’s second go-round. I marveled as well at how invested I felt, even in quieter scenes, as when the boy is off-put by his parents’ odd behaviour, and an awkward, drawn out mealtime.

This was one of those rare experiences during which any criticism of craft fell away. I was so drawn in by the cast and the story, I barely registered anything else. Nothing much detracted from the overall affair. I consider it a great achievement, forming so clear a connection between our world and the one in the narrative.

What strikes me most in retrospect, however, is a line I’ve heard before, something to the effect that only “failed” efforts should be remade. It was probably said in relation to Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, itself an acclaimed remake of the less-popular Bedtime Story. While it’s certainly successful on emotional and thematic levels, A History of Violence also feels as if Cronenberg has refashioned The Long Kiss Goodnight, maintaining most everything that worked, and correcting whatever did not.

But I’m still not remotely keen on the whole kids-in-peril thing.

* * * * *

Rated 18A (Canada) / R (United States)

96 minutes

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