A History of Violence
Directed by: David Cronenberg
Written by: Josh Olson (screenplay), John Wagner & Vince Locke (graphic novel)
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, Ed Harris, and William Hurt
When David Cronenberg decided to direct this brutal, idealistic masterpiece in 2005, it was snubbed royally by both the Academy Awards and general public. As time wore on, though, and the end of the decade lists needed to be made, A History of Violence rightfully appeared on them.
Once you see the movie, the title will evoke Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States. That’s how definitive it is on the subject. Cronenberg knows that violence is a part of human DNA, whether we want to acknowledge it or not. He uses this to create a visually stunning, relentlessly violent assault on the typical American family.
The Stahls are that family. Once the film moves past it’s brutal introduction, we see that almost too perfectly. They banter carelessly, the children are obedient stereotypes, and the couple are hopelessly in love. Thankfully, Croneneberg doesn’t stay there for long. We see Tom (Viggo Mortensen) and Edie (Maria Bello) engage in wildly erotic, kinky sex after the kids are gone. We see their son Jack (Ashton Holmes) do well in gym class and then almost get pummeled.
Things only get weirder, and more violent from there. Two criminals, who presented themselves as such in the first scene, invade Tom’s restaurant, looking for cash and a good time from one of the waitresses. Tom, to the surprise of everyone including himself, takes quick, visceral action and brutally kills the two thugs.
He is viewed as a hero. However, the viewer should be confused at this after seeing the gruesome way he disposed of the thugs. The script dares to question America’s hero fetish, not excusing them from the violent ways of human nature.
As days pass, gangsters claiming to be connected to Tom’s past show up. One of them, played venomously by Ed Harris, claims that Tom’s real name is Joey, and that he used to be a gangster in Philadelphia.
The film takes its violent course, but you’ll hear no more plot twists from me. Just know that the climax in the Stahls driveway and Tom’s confrontation with the Philadelphia gangster Richie Cusack (William Hurt in the film’s only Oscar nominated performance) claiming to be his brother are masterful, now-classic scenes in 21st century American cinema.
The performances in the film are all terrific. Mortensen is great as Tom, never letting us lose sight of the man who could be hiding such dreadful secrets. Maria Bello is superb as his wife, handling the tough twists with confusion and sublime rage. Hurt and Harris are terrific as the pair of gangsters claiming to be from Tom’s past. They both have their way of taunting him, as if they really do know him.
As far as adaptations go, this one is probably the greatest one as far as graphic novels go. Cronenberg has transcended the book here, creating a unique vision that will stand the test of time and become a true classic.