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A History of Violence Review

By Shawn McKenzie 09/30/2005

I wasn’t completely crazy about director David Cronenberg’s last movie, 2002’s Spider.  When I heard his follow-up, A History of Violence, was going to be another one from him that didn’t have the twisted sci-fi/horror effects that he is noted for, I was a little worried.  The worries faded away, and the movie proved that he could make an interesting story without special effects.

In the small town of Millbrook, Indiana, two vicious drifters come into town looking for money and trouble.  Leland Jones (Stephen McHattie) and William “Bill” Orser (Greg Bryk) stop to kill a little girl (Brittany Payer) and her parents before checking out of the motel that they were staying in.  Meanwhile, the movie shifts from the disturbing scene at the motel to a Norman Rockwellesque scene involving diner owner Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen), his lawyer wife Edie (Maria Bello), and their two kids, 6-year-old Sarah (Heidi Hayes) and 16-year-old Jack (Ashton Holmes.)  Tom owns Stall’s Diner, where he works with cook Mick (Gerry Quigley) and waitress Charlotte (Deborah Drakeford.)  Aside from Sarah’s occasional nightmares and Jack’s problems with high school bully Bobby Jordan (Kyle Schmid) and Bobby’s buddy (Morgan Kelly), of which Jack shares his troubles with friend Judy Danvers (Sumela Kay), things aren’t too bad in the Stall household.  Tom and Edie have a great marriage, and they have been hot for each other for 20 years (as displayed in a graphically explicit sex scene.)  All of that shatters one night when Leland and Bill stop in.  At first, they demand some coffee and pie, even though they are closed.  Then they demand the diner’s money, plus much worse.  In one very quick but sweet move, Tom takes them both out and saves the lives of the others in the diner (in true Cronenberg fashion, their deaths are very vicious.)  Tom ends up in the hospital with only a stab wound to his foot, but he is suddenly the local hero, earning praise from everyone, including his family, his co-workers, the press, and Sheriff Sam Carney (Peter MacNeill.)  The next day, Stall’s diner is packed with customers.  One of the people who stop by the diner is Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris), an associate for mob boss Richie Cusack (William Hurt), who comes into the diner with his henchman Charlie Roarke (Aidan Devine) and driver Frank Mulligan (Bill MacDonald.)  Fogarty orders a cup of coffee and calls him Joey, the supposed brother of Richie.  The man tells Tom that he was the one who gave him the nasty scar to his right eye, and that he needs Tom to come back with him to Philadelphia to finish a job.  Tom has no idea what in the world Fogarty is talking about, and Edie, who has been helping Tom with the increased influx of customers, calls Sam to push the men to move on.  The next day, Tom sees Fogarty’s car drive by on its way to the Stall house, and he panics.  He calls Edie and has her arm herself while he tries to make it there before anything happens.  Nothing does, but it makes Edie and Jack question Tom about the allegation that Fogarty made at the diner.  Later, Edie is shopping at the mall with Sarah when Fogarty returns, claming the same thing that he did at the diner.  She files a restraining order against Fogarty, which doesn’t make Tom feel any better.  After Jack is suspended for beating the crap out of Bobby, Tom realizes that he needs to stop this harassment himself for the last time, because it is upsetting the comfortable life he has built for decades.

Cronenberg has been nicknamed the “King of Venereal Horror” for over 35 years, but it wasn’t until recently that he has made “normal” movies that didn’t include science fiction special effects.  His most successful movies have been movies like 1981’s Scanners, 1983’s The Dead Zone, and 1986’s The Fly.  That’s not saying that this movie isn’t chilling or gross, which it is in both cases.  The action, though minor, is exciting, and the makeup effects of the killings are unsettling.  Tom’s fight scenes are very cool, though this movie doesn’t actually feel like an action movie.  Josh Olson wrote the screenplay based on the violent 1997 graphic novel of the same name by John Wagner and Vince Locke (the former co-created the character Judge Dredd; the latter has designed the cover art for the death metal band Cannibal Corpse.)  Fortunately, the movie didn’t feel like a comic book.

The director did assemble a mostly top-notch cast for his movie.  With this movie and last year’s Hidalgo, Mortensen is one of the few members of the Lord of the Rings trilogy who has grown beyond it and established his own identity.  Bello is like Diane Lane in the fact that she is an older actor who is more smoking hot than women 15 to 20 years younger than her…and she can out-act them as well.  Harris has been in movies for almost 30 years, but this is one of his most interesting characters to date.  In fact, I think that it’s possible that he might get a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for it.  Hurt’s character isn’t in the movie for too long, and the Oscar-winning actor has never really impressed me anyway.

I’m glad that Cronenberg has finally found a way to make a non-sci-fi/horror movie that was interesting.  A History of Violence is like Wes Craven’s recent Red Eye, in that both movies come from filmmakers who have stepped beyond their own original genres and have branched out successfully.  I’ve already mentioned Spider, but the only other “normal” movies Cronenberg has made was 1993’s M. Butterfly, which I never saw (but I heard was very boring), and 1996’s Crash (not to be confused with Paul Haggis’s Oscar potential from this year), which wasn’t bad, but felt like a violent late-night Cinemax movie with good acting.  I’d like to see Cronenberg make another sci-fi/horror movie again, but even if he doesn’t, I hope his next one will be as good as this one.


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