I was keen to see A History of Violence, but I also sat down to watch it with trepidation. The title of this film had me envisaging a brutal compilation of some of history’s goriest moments or something similarly horrific like a serial killer’s holiday snaps. Director David Cronenberg had a reputation from what I’d heard, as he followed up the success of this film with hard-hitting gangster story Eastern Promises, containing its own controversial fight scenes. I haven’t much stomach for excessive blood and guts.
The opening scene was indeed chilling; brilliantly so. From the very start A History of Violence declares itself to be a film that will give its actors room to act, its story room to grow and unsettle, and yet with a runtime of 96 minutes it’s no tedious slow-burner. The action kicks-off at detailed walking pace, with two shady but calm types loitering outside a motel. They exchange perfectly ordinary, mundane words. One of them disappears inside whilst the other moves the car a little further along. Then we see which man wears the trousers as the driver’s ordered to go and get water from the cooler in reception.
Inside he dawdles, the camera slowly following his casual, deliberate movements. Then he nonchalantly passes the bloody scene of carnage behind the counter to fill up his container with water. By this point the tension’s been skilfully raised to breaking point. A crying girl appears, clutching a soft toy. The man freezes. The gentle manner he adopts to reassure her, to stop her running or screaming, makes you wonder if he’s a reluctant pawn in a criminal world. Or at least he has enough heart to keep children out of his messy business. But then he gradually reaches for his gun.
The next scene starts with a girl waking from a bad dream, worrying about monsters. Viggo Mortensen appears to comfort his child, instantly establishing himself in the caring everyman role he played so well in The Road. He tells her: “There’s no such thing as monsters”. And yet the inhuman calculating coolness we saw in the preceding scene lingers hauntingly, encouraging the audience to feel differently.
The first twenty minutes of A History of Violence following its disturbing opening scene, caught me off guard for their ordinariness. Mortensen’s character Tom Stall is a simple country soul, running his store and looking out for his family. Far from being dull these establishing scenes are touching and add to the meaning of later events. Stall’s relationship with his wife, played by Maria Bello, is tenderly romantic and loving despite the length of the marriage. His daughter is cute, his friends and colleagues kind and his teenage son remarkably perceptive and intelligent for his age.
But then a handful of fleeting moments change everything. The thugs we saw at the start of the film turn up at Stall’s diner and proceed to terrorise his staff and customers. Reacting instinctively Stall intervenes to save everyone and inadvertently catapults himself to fame. His picture covers the town’s paper alongside the headline, “Local Hero”.
At this point A History of Violence’s title starts to make sense, as the film becomes a meditation on the consequences and ethics of violence. We’ve already seen some High School moments in which Stall’s son, played by Ashton Holmes, rose above the aggressive taunts of the sports hot-shot. Now Stall tries to deal with the accompanying trauma of killing a man, two men, in unforgettable close-up fashion. His family and the community rally round to comfort him. We never see the reasons behind the thugs’ killings. Cronenberg is careful to make most of the violence purely about how it makes a deep, repressed part of some people feel; how it satisfies them.
With the unwelcome arrival of more mobsters to Stall’s quiet town, the plot takes another unexpected twist. The story shifts from a thoughtful exploration of the nature of violence, to tense suffocation as the gangsters stalk Stall’s family, to suspicion and confusion as ghosts surface from Stall’s past. It’s all marvellously subtle, but hints from earlier in the film begin to make sense. Those establishing scenes really were good as you hope with Stall’s family that the demons go away. But of course they don’t.
The acting is superb. Mortensen and Bello are not just excellent as a couple early on in the idyllic stages, but wonderfully convincing and captivating later as destructive events unravel. There are memorable cameos from William Hurt and Ed Harris. The way the performers completely inhabit their characters ensures A History of Violence works masterfully as a gripping, suspenseful and action packed thriller, as well as an insightful film questioning ideas like the American Dream, identity, relationships, humanity and the past.
And the cherry on top of a filling, tasty and sumptuous slice of movie cake is a final scene as stylish, patient, subtle and moving as the opening one. If you haven’t seen A History of Violence, do so soon. It was not at all what I expected it to be and well worth a watch. Don’t be put off by the title or the 18 certificate because ultimately it’s a first-rate and surprising story. It won’t mentally scar you, merely make you think.
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When you’re an established director in British television it must be important to time your leap into films. It could be a matter of waiting for the right opportunity to come along. You might have a brainchild of your own to nurture into life. However you go about it, mistakes could be fatal for your aspirations. Do you stick to what you know or strike out boldly to get yourself noticed?
Colm McCarthy adopted the practical approach of a bit of both. Born in Edinburgh, his debut feature is set in the city and packed full of bleak, grey vistas. They’re similar to the gritty tone of one of McCarthy’s previous credits, Murphy’s Law. And McCarthy relies on the star of that show, James Nesbitt, to head up a strong line-up of British acting talent in Outcast. The director also co-wrote the film, which is a shocking and dramatic departure from glossy programmes like Hustle, The Tudors and Spooks which also adorn his CV.
Outcast is the tale of Mary (Kate Dickie) and Fergal (Niall Bruton), a mother and son pair that find themselves settling into a dingy, dirty flat on a rough estate on Edinburgh’s outskirts. As the film progresses it’s clear that Mary is fiercely protective of her son and that she and him are running and hiding from something dark in their past. Connections which link them to Cathal (Nesbitt) gradually surface, who arrives in the city on a primal hunt to kill. It doesn’t take long before members of the recognisable British cast start dropping like flies, but the culprit remains ambiguous right up until the climax of the story.
From the start Outcast tries too hard to establish its weird, horrific credentials. Rather than subtly revealing the occult aspects to the story, the clunky script hammers them home. We watch as Nesbitt’s character endures the application of painful ritualistic carvings to his back and immediately afterwards, Dickie’s mysterious mother drawing blood from her own naked chest and daubing ancient symbols over the walls. Later when Fergal’s teen love interest Petronella (Hanna Stanbridge) barges into the flat and discovers these odd images, Fergal simply explains his mother has different beliefs, rather than panicking or struggling more realistically (and interestingly) to keep the secret burden from his friends. Equally bizarrely Petronella isn’t fazed.
With so much blood and gore on show, Outcast needs strong, engaging and believable characters to be watchable. Unfortunately a weak script again lets down the cast. Most of the characters are nothing more than stereotyped caricatures. The highly sexed yobs on the estate are entirely predictable, as is Doctor Who’s Karen Gillan’s small role as an estate slut. Petronella’s simple brother is also a cardboard cut-out of a character. Her relationship and eventual love for Fergal, a key pillar of the plot, is not at all convincing. Another faulty key ingredient is Nesbitt’s miscasting as the menacing pursuer. Most of the time he appears baffled and far from frightening. Christine Tremarco gives a good performance as a rather pointless housing inspector and Dickie’s genuinely mysterious mother is just about the only character with the capacity to deliver proper scares. She does so a number of times, springing out from nowhere on her wandering son, issuing warnings and cursing Tremarco’s character so that she loses her mind.
For a horror film Outcast is far too predictable and its execution is heavy handed. All the pieces of a really gripping, frightening story are there but they simply don’t fit together in the right order. The crucially important occult influences are both overused and not ever satisfactorily explained. Grand themes like repressed sexual desire, forbidden fruit and ancestor’s sins returning to haunt the next generation, never quite come off. Brutal sacrifices and attacks, potentially original elements of the story, are uncomfortable to watch but never truly shocking. When more traditional scares arrive in monster form, the special effects look amateurish and almost laughably like a parody of a classic.
Most of the praise heaped upon McCarthy’s debut feature seems severely misguided in my view, although one review is right to hail the project an “ambitious” one. Sadly for the British film industry, Outcast lacked both the polished script and the resources to pull off what it was attempting. Throughout the whole thing you’re never quite sure what’s going on, but you’re never shocked or scared either. Outcast’s two dimensional plotting and characterisation means that a handful of sexy scenes, the charms of rising star Hanna Stanbridge and continuous gore are all that’s left to endear it to the (I suspect male) teenagers keen to get hold of it on its release, despite the 18 certificate.
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