History of Violence, A

A History of Violence (18)

David Cronenberg’s gripping new thriller opens with a scene of almost casual carnage at a quiet motel.

From that point it never lets up, adding layer upon layer of intrigue, mystery, brutality, sexuality and unapologetically bloody violence until one is almost giggling from a mixture of giddy, psyched-up, nervy horror and shocked disbelief.

Taken, like Road to Perdition and Sin City, from a graphic novel, A History of Violence chronicles what happens to Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen in his first major starring role since The Lord of the Rings saga) when he single-handedly foils a robbery at his diner by shooting dead two thugs.

Overnight, Tom becomes a hero. His face is flashed across 100 million television screens. He’s in every newspaper. And suddenly his diner is the most popular spot in his quiet Indiana town.

But not everyone is surprised by Tom’s ruthless proficiency with a pistol. Soon he’s receiving visits from hoodlums representing the Philadelphia Mafia. One, a reptilian killer with a scarred face and dead eye (played with delicious menace by Ed Harris) confronts Tom in his diner and calls him ‘Joey’. Tom shrugs it off and kicks him out.

But his new-found celebrity means he can find no peace. Soon wife Edie (Maria Bello), son Jack (Ashton Holmes) and the local sheriff are delving deeper into Tom’s background. Is he really just an ordinary dad with an ordinary life in an anonymous little town? Or is he hiding a secret past that he is desperate to keep buried? And who is Joey?

This is a deliciously dark adventure but one that is not without flaws. Seemingly influenced by everything from High Noon to The Count of Monte Cristo, A History of Violence adopts a schizophrenic point of view in relation to its central hero in revealing much of his past but never truly allowing his mask of mystery to slip fully.

Instead Mortensen’s inner turmoil is manifested in his wife’s suspicion, terror and paranoia. At his school his bullied son turns on his tormentor and demolishes him in a brief, bone-crunching battle that is more to do with his father’s new reputation than his own pent-up frustrations. Meanwhile at home Tom’s inner demons are starting to show their ugly faces.

The main thrust of A History of Violence is how society can so easily be affected and even manipulated by what is assumed and accepted. Cronenberg represents Stall as a good man and model citizen. Yet the dark shadows of his past cast a gloom over his life and, in an instant, shatter everything he has worked so hard to achieve.

What Cronenberg doesn’t do is explain Tom’s past to fill in details. Instead he has his hero disappear on an odyssey to mop up loose ends from years before. It’s here that the film veers off into new territory – an area that works on the basis that violence begets violence and one can never escape from living a lie.

Into this segment steps William Hurt, playing his lines like a Shakespearian villain as a Pennsylvania Mob boss. It jarrs with what has already passed but thankfully Mortensen, eyes blazing with ferocious fury, makes it work.

This is a searing drama and augurs well for Mortensen’s transformation from supporting face to star performer. It also proves, yet again, that Cronenberg is one of the most consistently interesting filmmakers on the planet.

Star rating: ****

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