I thought sci-fi fans might get a kick out of a review of this film since its source was a graphic novel and its director is David Cronenberg, who I rank with Kubrick as among the most important directors working in the genre.
The movie has a quality cast, including Viggo Mortensen as the rural Indiana restaurateur, Tom Stall; Maria Bello as his wife Edie; Ed Harris as the gangster Carl Fogarty; Ashton Holmes as Jack Stall, Tom’s son; and William Hurt as Tom’s kingpin brother from Philly. There are also a host of additional small-role actors that do an excellent job. Harris is particularly effective as the one-dimensional killer as is Holmes as the nerdy millennial.
The movie opens by following two motel guests, one in a dark button-down shirt in the middle of the desert, i.e. a bad guy, packing up to “head east” and “avoid the big cities”. The younger partner complains of the boredom and yawns his way through the rest of the scene, including when he’s asked to go back to the front desk and fetch water from the cooler for the long drive. There he sleepily encounters the clerk and maid whose throats his partner has just slit and almost nods out as he notices that a small child is emerging from the back room and shoots her. Like I said, bad guys.
This lovely bit of business is immediately contrasted by Tom and his quiet nuclear family. In these introductory scenes of the Stalls they all speak so softly and behave so tenderly to one another that the opening scene becomes submerged by the normal impulse to separate this seemingly vulnerable family from the monsters. But we know they will come and the savagery of the two drifters is anticipated by the inevitable high school bully that humiliates Jack in gym for daring to catch a fly ball to right. Violence, large and small, is almost clumsily emphasized. Cronenberg was said to have commented in connection to the film, “I am a great believer in Darwinian evolution and that violence is baked into our genes”, presumably explaining his lack of subtly on the issue.
When I read his comment, I thought of Cronenberg’s other films, like “Dead Ringers”, the story of twin gynecologists that descended into a surgical horror. And other of his films, Naked Lunch, Crash, Fly, all disturbing, but not particularly violent in any conventional sense. Rather, at their core, his films stylize death and disfigurement in a kind of grotesque eroticism. His focus, until “History”, was more in line with Poe than Peckinpah. Afterwards, however, gangsters and violence become common in his movies. One suspects the shift may be understood at least in part as commercial, but also, he seems to be trying to work out more conventional themes in more mature ways. For instance, “History” includes Bello in a frontal nude scene that seemed all too blue-blooded for the director of Naked Lunch.
In any event, when a very fickle fate sends our drifters into Tom’s diner, we are shown all the good that violence can do. For just as blue shirt instructs his youthful partner drooling at the waitress to “start on her”, mild mannered Tom dispenses with the would-be butchers faster than you can flip a flapjack. His ruthless efficiency at smashing a hot coffee pot in the face of one assailant, retrieving his gun and then dispatching both make his adversaries seem like amateurs. Even professionals like Ed Harris’ Carl and his gang can’t measure up to Tom’s lethal skill set. Carl, hearing of Tom’s heroics on the news, emerges from Tom’s past as if vomited out of hell’s mouth. His face seems half melted, one eye is clouded, he claims his visage is a reflection of Tom’s true nature and he has come to return him to it.
I won’t belabor the obvious. I’m sure the reader knows there is only one way our genes and destiny can resolve such a history. It’s a pretty good film, especially given its source. “A History of Violence” made money and won acclaim but it was less influential than one might have guessed back in 2005. When I saw it back then, I thought that some of the film’s hokier elements like the straw man bullies and one-dimensional housewives would evolve along with the genre. I was wrong, in fact, the thinnest parts of graphic novel sources like Watchmen or Westworld, the robot/costume stuff, became the focus of their realization on the screen. We have devolved, but I’m sure that statement comes as no surprise.