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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Life, for most of us, boils down to monotonous repetition. It’s broadly predictable, with the odd insignificant surprise. And Date Night, starring the comedy talents of Tina Fey and Steve Carell, is a routine rom-com affair, in more ways than one. It’s about the universal desire to shatter the same old everyday habits once in a while with some glamour and risk, and it’s a standard action packed tale of spiralling events, misunderstood circumstances and hilarious antics. Like life it does feature the odd surprise, in the form of cameos dotted throughout that are often scene-stealing turns, but the outcome is never much in doubt and the route is familiar.
Indeed critical opinion of Date Night following its release earlier this year was fairly unanimous. It’s an average film, neither good nor bad but “pretty good”. Most reviews inevitably focus on the central pairing of Fey and Carell, so crucial to the success of the movie. Most verdicts declare Date Night to be an adequate vehicle for their talents, with pleasing performances from both, but certainly not their best. I would certainly agree with the assessment of the leads’ performances and add my voice to the chorus praising (or denouncing?) Date Night as a pretty good film. However like most reviewers I was caught off guard by some brilliant cameos that overshadow the stars at times and generally I enjoyed Date Night considerably more than the usual “pretty good” film.
What was the reason for this I wonder? Well perhaps it was largely down to the fact I’m a sucker for sentiment. Whilst Carell is undoubtedly better working with comedic material, he’s proved he can handle the action in films like Get Smart and more importantly the emotional side of things by giving his characters bags of appeal as well as humour, for example in 40 Year Old Virgin. Here he does a more than passable job as the well meaning everyman. Fey too proves she is comfortable with the serious stuff as well as proving more adept in the funnier moments. It was easy to buy into the dying relationship scenario and the basic premise set up by a cameo from Mark Ruffalo; that marriage can descend into two people that are “really excellent roommates”. It tugged at the heartstrings to see two people so comfortable with each other, so suited and so close, growing tired of each other’s company simply from over exposure and the onset of tedium. The story keeps prodding at your emotions and stirring them into life, in that instantly recognisable rom-com manner, as the thrills and spills reignite the couple’s buried love for one another. Crucially though this is confidently executed romantic comedy based on real-life, largely free of sick inducing soppiness and lame gags and stuffed with quality.
There is a danger of the film losing sight of its focus at times though. The description of the film called it an “Action/Adventure, Comedy, Thriller” and this might suggest an identity crisis. Indeed during a key action set piece, a car chase with a slick new Audi, the comedy is at its weakest at the expense of some ridiculous and not hugely exciting thrills. This is not to say there is not some enjoyment to be found in the action segments of the film, but the average excitement of these scenes is ultimately what ensures the labels of mediocre and average. The comedy has some excellent moments, and is consistently good throughout with some likeable running gags. I particularly liked the recurring theme of outrage that the Fosters (Fey and Carell) would have the audacity and cheek to take someone else’s table reservation, as they explain to various people the crimes and horrors heaped upon them since.
And those cameos of course, from James Franco and Mila Kunis as a wonderfully bickering criminal couple that simultaneously mirrored the Fosters and were opposite to them. From Mark Wahlberg, in a bare-chested performance that first alerted the world to his hidden comedy talents and William Fichtner as a detestable caricature of corruption. These performances inject life into the film and stop it going stale. Not that there is ever any real danger of it doing so; the runtime is blissfully snappy and the leads are always likeable, if not always powerfully magnetic. Of course you could want more from a film, but perhaps Date Night’s message and execution is best summed up by the song “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”. The Fosters undoubtedly need each other and you might find yourself needing a pick-me-up like Date Night on a dreary drizzle sodden winter’s day.
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