by David Cornelius
There’s something off in the early scenes of David Cronenberg’s “A History of Violence.” Something’s not quite right here, something feels a little peculiar. And I don’t mean the scenes with the killers - although in a way, they, too, behave a bit too curiously, the way they move, they way they talk to each other. I mean the scenes after that initial introduction, the ones in which we then meet the main characters, inhabitants of the cozy town of Millbrook, Indiana. Nothing feels real here. Everything’s exaggerated, but only ever so slightly, barely noticeable, so much so that it’s almost subliminal.What we have in these opening scenes is a bit of small town cliché, with the politeness and the happiness and the tough kids in school wearing their letterman jackets, and it’s such an elevated reality that it feels like a dream. The American dream, in fact - here is not rural America as it is, but as it is imagined.
"This one hits hard and hits deep."
In these early moments, we meet Tom, an average Midwesterner, loving husband, father of two, unassuming owner of the local diner. Tom is played by Viggo Mortensen, and it’s quite notable that even after becoming such a star thanks to the “Lord of the Rings” films, Mortensen remains completely believable as the everyman. In the underrated “Hidalgo,” he let his aw-shucks-ma’am charm shine, and in “Violence,” he plays it up even more, allowing the audience to believe that this impossibly handsome movie star is instead just the fella who serves your coffee.
This is just one level of a remarkable performance from Mortensen, but I’m getting ahead of myself here. I should mention how Maria Bello plays Tom’s wife, and how the kids are played by Ashton Holmes and Heidi Hayes; all three add to the gee-whiz happy simplicity of this family, their home life seeming unbearably quaint. The casting of young Hayes is perhaps the punctuation mark on the whole idea here - with no offense meant to whom I’m sure is a lovely young lady, the platinum blonde cutesiness of the young girl borders on the creepy, as she comes off as a magnified version of what the ideal child should be.
The subconsciously unsettling simplicity of these characters now in place, we’re allowed to watch as this literal American dream collides with ugly reality, the killers from the first scene rolling into Millbrook, looking to stick up the diner. But Tom’s quick to the defense. Too quick, in fact, as he manages to take down both gunmen in a flash, an act that makes him a hero but also raises the eyebrows of the mysterious Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris), who soon arrives in Millbrook claiming to know Tom.
From here, the story plays out like you think it will - we watch the problems unfold as Fogarty begins his harassment of Tom’s family, we wonder if Tom is the innocent he says he is - and yet, it refuses to play out like you think it will. Which sounds like a contradiction, so let me explain: in another film, the story would become an action extravaganza, or perhaps an average thriller, but here, with Cronenberg at the helm, it becomes a character study. It does not set out to thrill, but to ask questions. What does violence seen up close do to one, psychologically? How does a family react under such pressures? This is not a film concerned with the rough outlines of what people would do. This is one concerned with close details of how they would think, how they would feel. (Consider a scene in which Tom must rush home before the bad guys get there. It’s a typical suspense moment, yes, but there’s such an underlying fear pushed forward by inward connection with the characters that it plays out in an entirely different way than it would have in any other movie.)
Indeed, while the film is adapted from the graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke, the screenplay, from Josh Olsen, merely uses the source material as a launching point, breaking off entirely from the novel before the second act. As such, it’s a great improvement. While I won’t say what the novel covers (to avoid those dreaded spoilers), I will say that the movie chooses to avoid such matter, which touches on genre formula, and instead focus on the immediate reactions of Tom’s family.
It’s the right choice, forcing the violence to affect the viewer in a far sharper manner. Cronenberg is unflinching in how he shows the pure ugliness of death and violence, but he’s also careful not to go too far, to push these moments into titillation. We see violence unfold naturally, without embellishment, and as such, we get a more natural picture. Even in a scene such as the son’s outburst at the school bully, which, of course, involves no death and little blood, we’re deeply affected; the filmmakers walk the line in showing us violence that feels necessary at the time, feels unnecessary in hindsight, and feels unshakably brutal at all times.
The film than becomes a visceral experience. Even the movie’s two sex scenes (despite both running a bit too long, upsetting the rhythm of the story, yet both are essential to the story) get under our skin and evoke deep, gut reactions. They put us in the minds of the characters, which, as things unfold here, becomes an ugly place to be.But I come back to Mortensen, who holds everything else together. If for no other reason, watch “Violence” to see and hear the nuances of his performance. There’s something he’s doing with his voice in this movie that gets to the character in such a subtle yet important way, little mannerisms that reveal secrets - or hide them. For all of Cronenberg’s precise direction, for all the right notes hit by Harris, Holmes, and William Hurt in a brilliant late-arrival role, for the bravery of Olsen’s screenplay not to work itself out in such expectedly simple ways, it’s Mortensen’s performance that slaps us the hardest in this movie. With the smallest of moves, the most understated of plays, he connects us to Tom in ways few actors could. And it’s this connection that allows “Violence” to run so very deep, to shake us to the bone, to wake us up and get us asking questions.
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originally posted: 09/30/05 23:25:33